Two weeks ago, Barcelona was flying towards another triplete, Madrid was falling way behind in La Liga, and culés like myself were looking ahead to a Clásico world series eagerly, expecting the Barca machine to blow Real Madrid to smithereens.
Oh my, how times have changed. After drawing El Clásico 1-1, the Copa del Rey going to Madrid, and two very different performances on Saturday in league play, the question isn’t “is Barcelona the best side in history?”, but “is Barcelona the best team in Spain?”.
El Clásico numero uno was not a fun match to watch, but we learned that with an ultra-defensive lineup, Mourinho’s men could effectively shut down the Barcelona attack. La Blaugrana were undoubtedly the better side, but despite controlling the vast majority of possession, it was Madrid who had more genuine scoring chances.
The Copa del Rey final was far more entertaining, and Barcelona really stepped up their game—going after Madrid with everything they had. For a stretch of the second half—and throughout much of extra time—“Los Bajitos” absolutely dominated Madrid, moving the ball around crisply and quickly, finding players in space and testing the great Iker Casillas. Sadly, it wasn’t enough.
Cristiano Ronaldo won the game for Madrid with a towering header goal, and Barcelona fans tasted defeat against Real for the first time since the 2007/2008 season. It was awful. I felt sick for the rest of the day. The little guys fought so hard, played such beautiful football, but were beaten by a bigger, stronger, more physical team.
Then came yesterday’s La Liga fixtures: Real Madrid at Valencia, and Barcelona hosting Osasuna. Not terribly important games, considering the eight-point spread at the top of the table, but a good opportunity to rest some players and build some momentum heading into Clásico number three.
Madrid manhandled Valencia, going up 0-4 in the first half thanks to a resurgent Kaká, a hat-trick from Higuain, and the silky-smooth play of Karim Benzema. The scariest part of their 3-6 win? None of these three players appeared against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.
Barcelona got by Osasuna in lackluster fashion, with a first-half goal from David Villa and a late score by Leo Messi. For most of the game, FC Barcelona looked positively putrid. Granted, many of their starters were riding the bench, but the home squad could hardly break the pressure of Osasuna, and, except for the opening and closing minutes of the game, failed to generate scoring opportunities.
Possession, yes, but so what? How was it, again, that this team scored 80 something goals this season? Where was the penetration, the runs up the wings, the little through-balls into the box? Barcelona looked reluctant, hesitant, out-of-sorts, and mediocre. Mascherano in the back and Valdés in goal were responsible for the clean sheet, and Messi’s magic in the closing minutes was responsible for any enjoyment a Culé might have felt.
Flash back to La Mestalla where Madrid is thrashing Valencia. Watching from the bench are most of the players responsible for beating Barcelona (e.g. Pepe, Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso), and the fist-pumping, smug-faced Jose Mourinho.
For the first time in two years, I’m worried about my boys in blue and red. Their back line is thinned, their offense looks stagnant, and the team standing in their way of another title looks bigger, faster, stronger, and incredibly dangerous.
Worst of all, the possession football that has gotten Barcelona this far has been beaten with size, strength, and some man-to-man marking. At this point, Guardiola has neither the time nor the personnel to change tactics. It’s tiki-taka or nothing. Let’s just hope these brilliant little footballers can come together against Real Madrid and once again show the world that Beauty can beat the Beast.