The race is heating up. Slowly but surely.
When the light turns green all analysis and expert opinion are void and we live for the moment.
EXPECT COPA DEL REY
A 3-1 scoreline has given FC Barcelona a bit of breathing room heading into the second leg of the Copa del Rey but it would be foolish to underestimate the quality Villarreal possess. Marcelino's men are perfectly capable of surprising the upper echelon of Europe with the likes of Vietto, Uche and Cherychev among others at his disposal. Estadio El Madrigal is regarded as one of the toughest away grounds in Spanish football however the Catalans should expect a result sufficient enough to book their seat in the final where they would face the winner between Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol.
With all due respect to the aforementioned clubs, Barca will be considered favourites to secure the Copa del Rey title should they make the final. Particularly if the (5-2) at Bilbao and (5-1) at home against Espanyol are taken into account.
HOPE FOR LA LIGA
In professional sports some look at the word hope as an insult. Others see at it as inspiring. Unless the title is mathematically beyond reach there's absolutely everything to play for and by the same token - everything to lose.
As it stands, FC Barcelona are three points shy from securing the top spot. Only two, if they're willing to risk a "tie breaker" situation. Thirteen matches remain, including the return leg of El Clasico where Barca will face La Liga leaders Real Madrid on home soil. To hope for La Liga shouldn't be considered a pipe dream. Especially since the turn of the New Year where the evolution of our performances have shown the mark of champions.
• Playing w/ the Best: Convincing results against top tier opposition in Atletico Madrid and Manchester City.
• Ability to Respond: Immediate reaction when conceding goals to the likes of Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao. Coming from behind against Atletico Madrid to ensure the win away from home.
• Winning Ugly: Unconventional win against Granada demonstrating a Champion's capacity to obtain (3) points when fatigue and/or form come into play.
The key to making hope a reality is sustaining consistency in our level of play. Without it, we won't be forgiven in a competition where participants eagerly await the opportunity to overtake one another into pole position.
Messi and Ronaldo face off March 22nd for El Clasico
DREAM OF THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
The UEFA Champions League is a different monster altogether. The nature of the contest is an emotional roller coaster with the most elaborate twists and turns. Despite having it's favourites no club is immune to a shock elimination. In fact since the tournament changed name and format in '92 no team has successfully defended the "Big Ears" cup.
For that reason all contestants dream of lifting the cup which is considered the most prestigious award in club football.
Since '06 FC Barcelona has had a firm presence in the tournament. Winning an astonishing three Champions League titles in less than a decade. What's considered equally impressive is six of the last seven sides that have eliminated Barca have gone on to claim Europe's most sought after award.
Nevertheless, many have started to doubt the strength of Barcelona's grip in the illustrious competition. Damaging defeats to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid have stripped the club and it's fans of confidence.
The more important question is why?
'12 - A saddened Guardiola announces he won't be renewing his contract
There's a wide range of opinion on the matter but this writer believes the answer lies in Pep Guardiola's departure. The most decorated manager in club history shared his thoughts in an interview with the magazine, 'Audi Annual Report':
"I left Barça because I couldn't motivate my players any more. Barcelona crashing out in the Champions League semifinals against Chelsea in 2012 was [difficult]. We were much better than our rivals, but we let in an unnecessary goal in the return game and before we knew it we were knocked out. That was a terrible defeat for me. I felt that I couldn't gee my team up at all."
"If, as a manager, you can't motivate your players any more, you know that it is time to go."
Fourteen titles in just four years is a remarkable achievement but heavily taxing as well. The hunger or the will to win may have dissipated as the players constantly pushed themselves for perfection. Over time - everyone tires. Tired minds, hearts and bodies leads to complacency. Complacency is punished in professional sports.
Enter Luis Enrique.
The current Barca manager has charisma, passion and the uncanny ability to get under people's skin. Sometimes playing nice doesn't get the right reaction. Sometimes - you have to ruffle a few feathers to get the best out of people. Can it be coincidence that since the "crisis at San Sebastián" Barcelona have been playing some scintillating football? Since his arrival Lucho has been determined to get the most out of each and every player (almost to the detriment of the club). His emphasis on high intensity training sessions has yielded positive results on the pitch.
This isn't the same exhausted FC Barcelona going through the motions. This is a hungrier, grittier Barcelona with something to prove. Lionel Messi shares his perspective on the club's new found ambition:
"There has been a change in the team's attitude and desire," Messi told reporters at a sponsor event. "In recent games we have come to the pitch with more enthusiasm to press and attack."The locker room wanted to change our image after the game at San Sebastián. And our response has not gone unnoticed."
Still, there is no guarantee or set formula to win the Champions League. Luck will have it's say but this once-wounded Barcelona seems to have shown it's resilience in the face of adversity. From losing Pep, to Tito's untimely passing and Tata's side lacking just a little something...
This hardened version of Barcelona has the will to fight back. And whether you like him or not there's no denying it's a quality that mirrors the character of our current manager.
UEFA Champions League Winner '15?
Dare to dream.