Barcelona fans can breathe a sigh of relief and relax… at least for a few days.
The win against Levante stopped the bleeding, but the real challenge will come on Wednesday when the Blaugrane face off against Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou.
La Real is currently holding steady at the top of the table, tied on points with Atletico Madrid. Their standing in first place has been well earned, and Barcelona will need to play their best game in order to earn the three points. Waiting for a moment of Messi magic won’t cut it.
To start the season, Real Sociedad were a power house. At one point, they were on a six-game winning streak while outscoring the opposition 17-2. Ultimately, it came to an end after a 1-1 draw against Villareal, who are also putting together a strong season under new manager Unai Emery.
Luckily for Barcelona, they will not be playing Real Sociedad at full strength. Like many teams this year, with Barca at the top of the list, injuries have slowed down La Real’s campaign.
For Real Sociedad, it’s been three consecutive draws against Villareal, Alaves, and Eibar respectively. Six precious points dropped that could be crucial in the outcome of a very competitive race this year.
The first significant injury came to new signing, and Manchester City legend, David Silva. Silva has been what La Real hoped for when earning his signature over Lazio in the last transfer window, bringing leadership and quality to the midfield. He made his return to the team last weekend against Eibar, and is expected to play against Barcelona.
It goes without saying that he is someone Barca will need to account for. He’s made a career out of being a playmaker with an eye for goal, and steps up when games are on the line.
But the top performer this season has been forward Mikel Oyarzabal, who’s leading La Liga with seven goals. Like Silva, he’s been sidelined with an injury for weeks, and it’s not known whether he will be fit for the clash on Wednesday. If he does play, the Barcelona defense will face one of their biggest challenges of the year, and will need to play a perfect game without mistakes.
Real Sociedad is a well balanced team under manager Imanol Alguacil. Whether Oyarzabal plays will have a big impact on the tactics, but Alguacil has options. On the attacking end, there are still many weapons at his disposal.
Veteran forwards Willian Jose and Portu have played a big role in creating chances that have helped Real Sociedad lead the league with 23 goals scored, with Portu in particular looking dangerous with four goals and two assists.
La Real will also feature an array of young talent who have been integral to the team’s success. One option if Oyarzabal can’t plan would be the dynamic, and very tall, Swede Alexander Isak, 21. In the center midfield, especially with David Silva out, Roberto López Alcaide, 20, has stepped in and performed well, in addition to Ander Barrenetxea, 18, who has emerged as a bright young talent.
No doubt Barcelona will need to be aware of the many attacking threats. But it’s on the defensive end where they will be challenged the most, because Real Sociedad is second to Atletico Madrid for goals allowed, surrendering only six. Led by defensive midfielder Mikel Merino, this is a disciplined and physical team that won’t be easy to get past.
Tactics and player selections will be significant in this game. Real Sociedad will not sit back, especially if they are fully fit. What you can expect is an intense and confident team, fully aware of the significance of this game, and wanting to make the most of the successful run they’re on.
How will Barcelona respond to that?
Barca usually has the superior talent, and this match up is no exception, but they don’t always play like it. With the Juventus thrashing still top of mind, the question will be whether they have the mental fortitude to take the game directly to their opponent.
Against Levante, you saw evidence of that. Lots of energy from the get go, with Frenkie de Jong and Philippe Coutinho in particular setting the example by pressing aggressively and covering lots of territory.
Collectively, they found their way through in front of goal with quick, crisp passing, and the intention to be direct. Going forward, in order to build a confidence that lasts, they’re going to need to combine this faster play with killer instinct in front of goal.
Against a talented and motivated side like La Real they will need to be clinical on the one end, and strong and composed in their defensive third. Ronald Araujo in particular looked up to the challenge on Sunday.
But Levante was a game they needed to win, and it didn’t look convincing. The game against Real Sociedad will be tough, but it’s also an opportunity that could pay dividends going forward.
Winning could change Barcelona’s perception of themselves. Do they have the mettle to rise to the challenge? If so, a victory will fuel them in future games against lesser opponents. Not to mention it would also cut the deficit at the top.
So Barca needs to go for it and play like their season is on the line. Ronald Koeman needs to coach like his job is on the line. After an up and down couple of games, he has important decisions to make, and now he absolutely has to get it right.
One way or the other we’re going to learn which direction the season, and the club, is going in. The power is in Barcelona’s hands if they choose to use it.