FC Barcelona will bring arguably the toughest week of the season to a close tomorrow evening, when they travel to Andalusia to take on Sevilla FC at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Following a midweek UEFA Champions League defeat at the hands of former coach, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, Blaugrana pride has already taken a hit this week – and another match without a win, particularly headed into the international break, could prove problematic for Luis Enrique.
While Atletico Madrid were comfortably beaten this afternoon in the Basque Country, falling 2-0 to Real Sociedad at the Anoeta, Barcelona enter tomorrow’s prime-time encounter knowing that anything less than a win is likely to see them fall behind in the title race. The reason being that current league leaders, Real Madrid, are playing host to Leganes in Sunday’s early kick-off – and with all due respect to Leganes, the club from a satellite town just outside of the capital only stand a very slim hope of escaping the Bernabeu with a share of the points.
And so, by the time the final match of Jornada 11 begins, Barcelona could be as many as five points adrift of top spot; hardly an ideal position given the way that our week has turned out so far.
Much has been made of the midweek defeat against Manchester City and in typical Culé fashion, most of the takeaways have been doused with a liberal dosage of hyperbole and fatalism. Some fans might have you believe that this solitary defeat provides proof that Luis Enrique is incompetent and therefore unsuitable for his current position as Barça’s head coach. Others might suggest that our midfield is to blame, and some have even gone as far as to imply that the entire system is flawed and no longer effective across all competitions.
All this reaction to what, one defeat? Even giving the critics the benefit of the doubt, and conceding that this applies to a few games this season – the takeaway is still the same: all this reaction and doubt in response to a few bad games?
Let’s leave aside the actual criticisms aside for a moment – as we can address those later – and let’s look at what this all boils down to. At the moment, the suggestion is that if these trends continue then Barcelona don’t stand a chance of winning any silverware at the end of this season, presumably because all of the other teams in Europe’s elite are simply so much more consistent, right?
Well, Real Madrid conceded three goals in midweek to a team that’s in sixth place in the Polish Ekstraklasa. Atletico Madrid were outclassed and dominated earlier today by Real Sociedad. Elsewhere in Europe, Bayern Munich are dropping far more points, including another draw this afternoon against Hoffenheim, and generally look far less dominant under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti; PSG aren’t even top of Ligue Un and we beat Manchester City 4-0 a couple of weeks ago.
Just like Luis Enrique has a few items to work on at FC Barcelona, each manager across Europe’s elite has their own problems to contend with and there’s not a single club that has truly established itself as the early favourite for glory across all competitions. So, if you’re one of those people that has an issue with Enrique and you’re still reading this article, consider that no-one else in football is reaching the standards you are demanding either – and how this might reflect more on those expectations than on the coaches or their teams.
Moving back to the midweek performance, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to the match and experience the game first-hand – the frustration I felt was not at seeing my team lose, or because I felt we were outclassed; rather, the frustration I felt was that we did not take our chances in the first-half and end the match as a contest when we had the opportunity.
Prior to the equaliser, Barcelona were not only the better team – they were the only team in that match. The manner in which the visitors retained possession, navigated past the pressure and repeatedly probed the City defense was incredible. Being sat amongst the home supporters, it was impossible not to overhear the frustration of the crowd at how the match was turning out.
“Not again! Come on City, they are embarrassing us.”
“They’re going to give us another hiding if we’re not careful…”
For a period, the travelling Culés in the South Stand at the Etihad were providing the soundtrack to the opening half with playful chants of olé every time the Blaugrana completed a pass. Sure, the night ended in disappointment and defeat – but it could have just as easily ended in celebration.
Credit where credit is due, City turned it around in spectacular fashion with a much-improved performance – and I don’t mean to detract from their win, nor do I want to sound like I’m providing excuses – but the biggest reason they were able to turn the match around was Barcelona’s complacency. After the first goal went in, Barcelona relaxed, passed the ball around and seemed to assume that they had the match won.
City returned for the second-half with a much greater intensity, more focus and a greater purpose – and Barcelona couldn’t compete. For City, this match meant something – heck, it meant everything, not only as validation of hiring Guardiola, but of City’s progress as a club to defeat the one team in Europe’s elite that has always put them to the sword. They also needed that win to remain in second place in the Group C standings – Barcelona were sitting pretty in top spot no matter the result.
Take a few more signs from the match; the third City goal was scored, albeit in somewhat controversial fashion and almost immediately the Blaugrana burst back into life. The ball is circulated with a bit more purpose and a lot more tempo. The players begin to move into space – and City are on the back foot. It doesn’t last long, but it was almost like an admission from the Barcelona squad that they had been coasting in second gear for the majority of the match.
Maybe we lost because we were complacent. Maybe we lost because we were conserving energy for tomorrow’s more important match. Maybe we lost because Luis Enrique and the squad aren’t very good.
Or maybe we lost because every match is different, and sometimes losing just happens in football?
As fans, the reason shouldn’t really matter to us all that much – as soon as the preparations start for the next match we should be focusing on getting behind the squad and doing our part to try and inspire them to something better.
Sevilla – away. Make no mistake, this is one of the toughest matches on the calendar, but I still have faith – do you?
You don’t need me to remind you about the current injury crisis that has stricken FC Barcelona, but perhaps it would be useful if I reminded you that we’ve pretty much been here before. Just prior to the start of the season proper, Barcelona contested the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla, with the first-leg being played in Andalusia at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Andres Iniesta was taken off injured in the first-half, with the two teams yet to break the deadlock. Neymar and Rafinha were away on international duty at the Olympics. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was injured; Jordi Alba was injured – Jeremy Mathieu started at left-back, only to suffer an injury of his own in the first-half. There were so many pieces missing for Luis Enrique, and yet somehow we managed to overcome these absences and secure a 2-0 win.
In similar circumstances tomorrow, Enrique will no doubt be reminding his team of this performance and of this victory. It wasn’t the prettiest win of his reign, but it counted all the same and if provided the opportunity, he would gladly accept a repeat tomorrow evening.
In goal, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will continue between the sticks – and while his composure and elegance in possession will be important against Sampaoli’s high-press, we need to focus on shifting our whole team forward and establishing our presence in the Sevilla half – as opposed to inviting them onto us by involving MAtS too proactively in our game.
It’s great to have a goalkeeper who is comfortable in possession, but it’s just obvious that he isn’t going to be able to play passes that actually have much impact – because he’s quite literally the furthest away from the opposing goal. In other words, we could have Xavi in goal and it’s not like passing to him would then help us create chances or do anything other than keep the ball for the sake of keeping the ball.
We can use ter Stegen when we need him – but if we’re wondering why Luis Suarez isn’t playing very well at the moment, it might have something to do with the fact that he’s seeing less of the ball than our goalkeeper.
The same can pretty much be said of all the other players in the outfield as well. Busquets would have more control over the game if the game was played in front of him – at the moment it seems to be behind him, or to either side – and that means that he is being pulled further and further away from the position that he wants to play – and needs to play in order to be effective.
I admit that Busquets has been off his game, but is that any surprise when we consider how often he is being pulled out of position? It’s not like we act surprised that Messi doesn’t score as often when he’s dropped deep into midfield, or when Suarez is stationed out wide – so why the criticism for Busquets? The focus should be on how we improve as a collective unit to ensure we dictate the style of play that we want.
A huge part of that will return when Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba make their comebacks from injury – but that day isn’t tomorrow. Samuel Umtiti didn’t have his best day on Tuesday, but he still made a few key interventions and continued to show poise in possession – he should look at tomorrow’s match as a chance to demonstrate to Enrique why he deserves to start ahead of Mascherano when Pique returns after the international break.
Against Sevilla’s high-press, mobile attack and fluid positional interchange, Umtiti is going to be tested tomorrow evening no doubt. But if he can stand up to that challenge and demonstrate that he can lead the backline against elite opposition, that could prove to be key for his long-term future at the club.
Elsewhere, the team for tomorrow essentially picks itself. Sergi Roberto and Lucas Digne will play at either full-back position; Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic provide stability and experience – and of course the frontline selects itself. The only question mark is the final midfield berth, the one that Iniesta would usually fill.
Andre Gomes showed glimpses of his talent in midweek against Manchester City, and he impressed me far more in that match than he did against Valencia and against Celta Vigo. However, for a match like this, with Pique and Alba missing – is he the best answer? Arda Turan is the best player, talent-wise, from the options available, but I remain adamant that either Rafinha or Denis Suarez is the better fit given their time in La Masia.
In particular, I can’t look past Rafinha – with five goals in La Liga this season, he has any many goals to his name as Kevin Gameiro, Cristiano Ronaldo, Aritz Aduriz and Yannick Carasco. He also has more than Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema; but it’s more than the goals – it’s the energy, the cutting edge and the balance that he provides. Rafinha has recaptured the form that saw him nearly break into the starting XI, and I think it would be criminal to keep him on the bench during such a purple patch.
The big news ahead of tomorrow’s match is that on-loan Samir Nasri has been included in the matchday squad and could make his return against the Blaugrana tomorrow. Nasri has been in inspired form since his summer switch from Manchester City, where even before his move, he was showing signs of improved form for Pep Guardiola’s side. Undoubtedly, Nasri has been the driving force behind Sevilla’s strong start to the season and it will be crucial for Sampaoli to have him available for this crunch clash.
Also available is Wissam Ben Yedder; the striker missed the midweek match with Dinamo Zagreb with a knock to his ankle, also picked up last weekend in the draw with Sporting Gijon, but the ex-Toulouse man should be ready to start if called upon. The only major absentee is Gabriel Mercado, as the Argentine defender might well be the first player in La Liga to be suspended this season for accumulation of yellow cards.
FC Barcelona 3-0 Sevilla FC – 17th August 2016 – Supercopa
A brace from Arda Turan sent the Blaugrana on their way to a comfortable second-leg victory, before Lionel Messi added the icing on the cake with a superb header from a Lucas Digne cross.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Umtiti, Mascherano, Digne; Busquets, Rakitic, Rafinha; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Sevilla (3-4-1-2): Rico; Rami, Carrico, Escudero; Mariano, N’Zonzi, Iborra, Vitolo; Nasri; Ben Yedder, Vietto
Sevilla rarely lose at home, are in form and facing a Barcelona team that is struggling to find its feet – this could be a banana skin, but it could also be a chance for us to make a statement. Expect the front three to drag us to victory, similar to the Mestalla. 3-2 Barcelona.