An analysis of why Luis Enrique is justified in thinking Barcelona’s best is yet to come and how the El Classico thumping win is decisive to Blaugrana’s season ahead fortunes.
The month prior to El Classico
Till about three weeks ago (start of November), Real Madrid looked the best team in club football. They had the meanest defence in Europe, were leading La Liga title race as well as their Champions League group stage table.
Their peers in the top bracket of football – Barcelona and Bayern Munich – looked tad behind then. Barcelona were steady in results but were battling injuries and transfer limitations. The double impact forced them to play an A team in their first Copa Del Ray fixture vs Villanovense, which ended 0-0 towards end of October.
Bayern Munich, meanwhile, had been beaten by their Champions league group laggards, Arsenal in October, and drew a game in Bundesliga later that month, against Eintracht Frankfurt, bringing an end to the Die Roten’s record winning sequence.
In first week of November, Guardiola’s forces thrashed Arsenal 5-1 and Benitez masterminded a tough 1-0 win over PSG – establishing credentials as best two teams ready to snatch back titles from Barcelona. In a Sky Sports programme the experts predicted Real as La Liga winner and Bayern as Champions of Europe. That may still happen. But the world post this weekend’s El Classico has changed football dynamics, for now.
Led by Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta and Roberto, Barcelona’s 4-0 thumping of the Galacticos at Bernabeau firmly edges them above their top bracket peers. It’s suddenly hitting senses that Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich’s last four competitive encounters with Real Madrid and Barcelona have ended with a nett 3-10 humiliation scoreline (all Champions League Semi Final encounters). Till Bayern Munchen beat any of the top most clubs this season, the jury will still be out on them.
Real Madrid beat Paris Saint-Germain (can say fourth best team around) earlier this month, but consecutive meetings with top teams have shattered them. If the 3-2 loss at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan to Europa cup holders Sevilla was thrilling, what followed this Saturday was humiliating. A result that will set cat amongst the aristocratic pigeons at the Spanish capital!
Negotiated the toughest possible part of season
Barcelona have negotiated the toughest possible La Liga fixture list (first 12 games) with four point lead at top of the table. They have now played both the Madrid giants away from home, played Sevilla away from home, played Athletic Bilbao away from home and played Celta Vigo away from home! Their only serious banana skins, away from home, remain Valencia and Villarreal, with no disrespect to other teams, for rest of the season.
Earlier this season, Camp Nou was extremely unpleased with the La Liga draw and cried conspiracy theories. “”It seems they want us to lose the league,” was a comment overheard at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper as per reports.
Once the season started and the injury list began growing (Messi, Iniesta, Rafinha, Alves, Alba, Pique, Rakitic) serious doubts crept in on Barcelona’s ability to even stay in race till January – after which their new acquisitions Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, would come in.
There were murmurs on intelligence behind sale of Xavi and Pedro – both of whom would have likely started games in October and November, had they still been with the Catalan club. There were questions on ability of youngsters Sandro and Munir (read : lack of goals).
The buildup to El Classico had another alarm of Sergi Busquets injured and while Sergi started the game, 27 minutes into the encounter, Javier Mascherano limped out. The challenges just didn’t seem to cease.
However, by the 90th minute, the world looked different.
Season defining win with little from Messi, Mascherano, Rakitic
That Barcelona romped at Bernabeau without Messi, Rakitic and Mascherano playing even two thirds of the game reeks high of the team’s direction forward. Busquets, Iniesta, Alves, Pique, Rakitic all looked good, and Lord Messi is now back. Messi ‘dependencia’ – so long the bane of FC Barcelona during the Tata Martino and Late Tito Vilanova years – is now shelved as Suarez and Neymar lead the Pichichi charts.
At one point i was debating whether Enrique was right to risk Messi in a game already done and dusted. Had Messi got another rash tackle, this would have won award for most foolhardly decision of the season. But till that point, how do you contain the burning fire within Messi? The legend on him must have been itching to get on field and sew up yet another big win over their famous rivals. Eleven years and one day on, this was the first El Classico where Messi didn’t start, since his debut.
I don’t blame Luis Enrique. Had he stopped Messi from entering the field, there was a serious case that the manager may have got injured … on the nose!
Finally.. La Masia… stands up!
After a half decade long wait, that some of Barcelona’s youngsters would reach THAT level, the El Classico finally approved for one candidate – Sergi Roberto.
Roberto filled the right back role to perfection during Alves’s injury; slotted in a key equalizer in a tight Champions league game in October (vs Bayer Leverkeusen); and now has three assists in November. The most crucial of them, being the last one – an outstanding defence splitting pass for Suarez to strike home a brilliant opener at Bernabeau.
Ever since Guardiola fast tracked La Masia starlets Busquets and Pedro into the senior team, Barcelona had reached a saturation point in upgrading the academy stars to world beating players. Often the frustration debunked the theory – that La Masia would constantly provide top class talent. It reached boiling point when the likes of Bojan, Cuenca, Tello, Thiago had to be loaned/sold away after long time investment into first team, bore little fruits. It’s starting to look the same for Batra, Munir and Sandro too.
Hence Sergi Roberto‘s ascendancy is more relief than joy, a lotus finally blooms in the mud!
Is Luis Enrique’s Barcelona better than Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona
This debate will begin to mushroom every time Barcelona wallop a big team, though it’s still early days for Enrique. Guardiola’s Barcelona reached Champions League semifinals in each of the four years of his contract, aside three La Liga titles. That level of consistency will take some beating.
While for now, the Catalans seem firm favourites in the title race, in football, things change very fast. Early in January 2015, Enrique was all set to be sacked. From there, he engineered history – Barcelona being the first team to win the treble twice.
Even earlier this season, his team was royally whipped by Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo (in different competitions). Yet, strangely, he stayed calm, collective and measured. Luis Enrique’s team management skills in 2014-15 showed that his starting eleven peaked as the season went on and were at their brutual best at business end of the season.
Comparatively, Guardiola’s teams (Barcelona, Bayern Munich) are more ruthless during first three quarters of a season and then drop a gear / suffer injuries / lack ideas / feel jaded at the business end. Four Champions league semi final exits in six semi final attempts, tells some story.
There again, i went into a comparison, which i shouldn’t. End of the season, if Barcelona or Bayern Munich do the treble, theargument will be settled, either ways.
And i don’t see any other team doing it!