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Are Barcelona Genuine Champions League Contenders?

There is no question FC Barcelona are strong, but are they in contention for football's biggest club prize?

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

As we approach the Christmas break in La Liga, we enter the period where teams began to really show their true form and prove their title credentials. This is also the period where the strongest teams in Europe began to flourish and become more and more fancied to bring home the Champions League. So how do Barça compare at this mid-way point? Are they true contenders for the "big eared" trophy?

A club as big as Barcelona are always going to be in with a shout, but the last few seasons have seen them falter in the latter stages. This season, there has been a major overhaul within the squad with plenty of new faces entering with some familiar ones heading the other way. So how does this new crop compare to the team that reached semi-final after semi-final for the majority of recent seasons.

As it stands Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are both the bookmakers' favourites to win the tournament and these teams both have great defences with natural leaders, so let's compare that to Barcelona's current defensive setup.

With many experienced players leaving and a transfer ban looming, Barcelona needed to spend big this summer. Claudio Bravo and Marc-André ter Stegen were recruited between the sticks while Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen and Douglas were brought into the back-four. These new faces do bring plenty of experience but you can make the argument that none of them are world-class defenders that could walk into any team on the planet at this moment in time.

Grouped with Gerard Piqué's consistent ability to be inconsistent, Dani Alves' decline in form and Jordi Alba's ability to go missing in games, Javier Mascherano, a man who is a converted centre-back, and Marc Bartra have emerged as Barça's best defenders this season.

The defence is often the first point in building a great team and compared to the other top teams across the continent, Barcelona's seems to fall a little short.

In the modern era, Barcelona have always been blessed with a wealth of midfield options. However for the first time in a long time, we have seen signs of this midfield stronghold becoming a little thin. Cesc Fàbregas was sold in the summer meaning Ivan Rakitić was bought to partner club legends Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Rakitić did have a good start to his Barça career but in recent matches has come up a little short and has subsequently seen his game time shortened.

Iniesta continues to pull the strings but even he has produced a couple of less-than-excellent performances this season, a rarity throughout his career. His longterm midfield partner Xavi has finally started to show signs that he is ageing, Luis Enrique has recognised this and the club captain has become more aquatinted with the bench than he would perhaps like to.

Sergio Busquets has arguably been the most consistent midfielder this season, helping Barcelona to maintain a long clean sheet run at the start of the season. As usual, Busquets is key in initiating Barcelona attacks and he will need to become an even more clinical force if Barça are to progress in the Champions League.

For the first time in a long time, the midfield may become a problem area for the side and Enrique can't expect Xavi and Iniesta to continue performing week after week at the level they did during their prime. This is where responsibility falls to the likes of Rakitić and Rafinha, who need to prove they have what it takes to make it at a big club.

Finally, we have the strikers, an area of the team that rightly has a claim to be the best in the world. The partnership of a four time World Player of the Year and Brazil's next superstar was only made stronger when last season's Premier League top-scorer joined.

Although controversial, Luis Suárez's signing is a huge one for Barcelona and while he has spent the majority of his time so far banned from the game, you can't imagine it will be long before he starts hammering in the goals like he did in the red of Liverpool.

On the other wing, we have Neymar who seems to have raised his game since last season and has shown signs of becoming a more complete player. You could make the argument that he has come out of Messi's shadow and found a home in an area of the pitch where he is most dangerous. Drifting in from the left, he now works in partnership with Messi instead of looking to not get in the Argentine's way. It is often easy to forget how young Neymar is and this player can surely only get better.

Then we have Lionel Messi. Not much more can really be said about the Barça number 10. Truly a phenomenon who continues to break records that looked like they would never be broken. Becoming the La Liga top scorer and the Champions League top scorer last week, Messi remains Barça's main man and any success they have, relies heavily on him playing at his best.

Although it remains to be seen how this front three will work together, they can be confident of outscoring any opponent.

The key to whether Barcelona do have a shot at the Champions League is what kind of form their forwards are in. While a strong attack doesn't pave over the cracks in the rest of the team, Barça have a unique ability of playing a game with a philosophy of "if you score three, we'll score four". Whether this philosophy is eventually found out by the bigger teams during the latter stages remains to be seen but as always, you can't rule out Barcelona.

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