What a difference a week makes! Just seven days ago the world was getting used to England’s win over Spain, and Barcelona did not look particularly good. A draw against Athletic Bilbao was fresh on our minds, not to mention the average performance against Hospitalet. The media were claiming that two dominant forces were in decline: of course Spain and Barcelona.
Both looked jaded and uninspired; motivation appeared to be the problem. These were men that had spent the last few years winning every tournament in sight, would they be able to continue in that vein? Everybody knows that all good things must come to an end, but juxtapose this up against another famous saying "form is temporary, class is permanent" and it all gets mighty confusing.
The naysayers latch onto the former, and in Barcelona’s case they claim that Real Madrid are ready to ascend to the throne. As a Culé, I tend to stick to the latter, which brings me nicely onto the next point: are some of Barcelona’s players in decline?
David Villa is the most obvious example, and his downturn in form has prompted a full scale debate amongst most Blaugrana fans. With Isaac Cuenca lurking ominously in the background and Alexis Sanchez coming back to the fore his place in the starting line-up is no longer guaranteed. The same can be said for Pedro, but given his recent injury it would be harsh to drag him into this conversation just yet. El Guaje is slowly but surely getting back to his best, his goal yesterday was testament to that fact, whether Pep Guardiola can afford to wait is a different matter.
Next we move onto Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol who have each come in for their fair share of criticism in recent weeks. One is meant to be "too old" and the other is supposedly "too error prone", but when they are partnered together it becomes a whole different story. Yesterday was a return to form for the central defensive pairing with each getting their name on the score-sheet, while keeping Zaragoza at bay.
Ooooooohhhhh! Moc Moc!
Seydou Keita is the next under-performer, but it must be said the Malian has been a fantastic servant for the club over the past few seasons. However, at 31 years of age (32 in January) it remains to be seen whether Keita is just suffering from poor form or if he is declining as a footballer in general. In the defensive midfield role he is effectively a dead-weight, but offensively he does offer another dimension. His header to Puyol was unselfish and most of all it was intelligent. Rumours of his decline certainly have a basis in fact, but Seydou cannot be counted out just yet.
Maxwell was also showing signs of promise on Saturday night, and while I felt the opposite for all of these players last week, it is clear to me that the team is getting better. Slowly but surely Barca are improving; a return to some sort of top gear is inevitable and the only question is whether it will be enough to stave off this challenge from Real Madrid.
November is traditionally a strong month for a Guardiola-managed side, and Wednesday’s encounter with AC Milan is effectively meaningless in some ways, but in others it is vital. Firstly, Barcelona have qualified, and therefore this match is somewhat of a waste of time. However, it will determine the winner of the group, and not only that, but can be used as a confidence booster and a barometer for success in the coming weeks.
Barcelona’s away form has been less than amazing, but this provides a chance to prove the doubters wrong and send a message to Real Madrid. Milan will surely set out defensively, and after all the delirium surrounding the lack of cutting edge displayed by Spain, it is a huge test for the Blaugrana. Can Lionel Messi make the difference? I imagine that we all know the answer there...
The San Siro is a hostile environment, and is a good warm-up for El Clasico at the Bernabeu. Not only that, but the chance to play against a prima-donna like Zlatan Ibrahimovic should serve as an adequate build-up for Cristiano Ronaldo! Only joking of course, Zlatan is no-where near as good as Ronaldo...Forget the meaningless international friendlies, this is where we find out the player’s motivation.
This is where the season begins.