At six points, Madrid's lead at the top of the table is the largest since Pep Guardiola took the reins at FC Barcelona in 2009. And while there are plenty of reasons to believe Mourinho's men have finally caught up to Barcelona, I'm still not convinced. Looking ahead to what remains of La Liga BBVA, here are four reasons I believe Barcelona will be crowned champions of Spain in 2012.
1. It’s a long season
After fourteen games, Real Madrid's lead is six. But there are still 23 more league matches to be played. That’s plenty of time. Just a couple weeks ago, Barcelona were top of the table. Points can be dropped quickly, especially this year with clubs like Valencia and Levante playing so well.
As La Liga enters the stretch, there is almost invariably a crunch at the top. Even in Barcelona’s dismal 2007/2008 campaign, they made a late-season run from a dozen points off the pace to within two of eventual champions Real Madrid. This year, with a supremely confident squad and the second Clásico being decided at Camp Nou, Real Madrid—if they’re still ahead—can be caught late.
It’s been a bit painful at times watching FC Barcelona switch between the classic 4-3-3 formation and the inconsistent 3-4-3. But with each game played, the players and Pep himself are learning how to play the formation better, and when to use it most effectively. The 4-0 victory over Rayo is the perfect example: Pep started a 4-3-3, saw his team struggling, and quickly switched to the 3-4-3. The players responded, and for the most part, everybody seemed to understand their new roles.
Having the personnel to drastically change formations on the fly is a huge advantage, especially as the league wears on. Teams will have more difficulty preparing for Barcelona, and we’re less likely to see stagnant performances. Most of all, the 3-4-3 allows for the maximum application of offensive firepower, and when healthy there has likely never been a more potent attacking squad than FC Barcelona 2011/2012.
While Mourinho is a tactically brilliant coach, Madrid will line up essentially the same formation from here on out. Many of the sides Los Merengues have dismantled in the first half of the season may be far better prepared the second go around.
3. Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona
There’s alot of talk comparing Leo Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo—the two best players on the two best teams in the world. I’m a bit tired of it myself, but the fact remains that FC Barcelona has by far the best player in the world on their side. While Cristiano is just as important to Madrid as Messi is to Barcelona, he does less to make his teammates better, and carries with him some serious baggage.
Although it may seem irrelevant, the fact that fans across the world chant "Meeeesssi, Meeeesssi" to Ronaldo’s face is significant: whereas Messi is widely adored and respected, Ronaldo is vilified and derided. It’s like the force; while the dark side may be more attractive, the light side of the force always prevails. Messi, as a positive person, will continue to create positive situations for himself and FC Barcelona. Ronaldo, on the other hand, will continue to attract heavy criticism, poor treatment from the referees, and questionable relationships with his teammates. Advantage: Barcelona.
4. Quedan dos clásicos
There are still two league clashes between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Head to head, Barcelona under Pep Guardiola have proven again and again that they are the better squad. Outside of a narrow defeat in last year’s Copa del Rey final, the Blaugrana haven’t lost to Madrid under Pep, and that won’t change this season. The gigantic nature of these clásicos brings a mountain of added pressure and attention. Guardiola’s cool head and humble nature have rubbed off on his players, and Barcelona are far better equipped to deal with big games than are Madrid. Nobody will argue with the starting XI. Xavi and Iniesta will delight in midfield. Messi will terrorize Madrid’s defense and have the referee reaching for yellow. And whichever newcomers—be it Thiago, Alexis, Cesc, or even Cuenca—that get an opportunity to play will have the games of their lives.
If Barcelona can get just one point from the Bernabéu next weekend, they’ve got three big ones in the bag waiting at the end of the season. That leaves three little points—or one surprising defeat—separating these squads. While Madrid has been flying all season long, Barcelona have endured key injuries and some serious tactical shuffling. All signs point to a superb finish for the Blaugrana. The question is, can Madrid keep it up? I think not. I think at some point Mourinho's men encounter some adversity, turn on each-other, and drop points. Calmly, steadily, and with elegance, the boys in blue and red will float back to the top of the table.