Monday, January 12, 2015

Nervous Barça put on a brave face

Barcelona 3:1 Atletico Madrid

Here in Spain, the main Yuletide celebration is not Christmas Day but Los Reyes (the Kings), the Epiphany, the 6th of January or Twelfth Night, the date when the baby Jesus delivers presents to the good children of Iberia in the same way the three wise men from the east brought gifts to him.

Last night, Barcelona's three kings, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, mirrored the end of the festive season by uniting in perfect symmetry to cheer one of Suarez's strikes. Barça downed a disappointing Atletico Madrid 3-1 to remain in second in La Liga, hot on the heels of their big city rivals.

With these three wise men up front, surely the blaugrana will catch los merengues, one point ahead with a game in hand.

Well, not necessarily. Leaving aside the off-field angst which saw Carlos Puyol and Antoni Zubizarreta given the heave-ho last week while talk of Messi falling out with Luis Enrique swirled around the Camp Nou, Barcelona are still not playing anything like champions.

Suarez appears to have found his scoring boots at long last but does not anything like the danger man he was at Liverpool, where at times he looked like he was the best striker in the world.

Neymar has not exploded onto the scene as billed, but is providing a useful addition to an attack carefully structured to make the most of Messi.

When Messi has space to run into, as he was granted last night by a somewhat overawed Atletico, he can still destroy defences, but how long will it be until his phenomenal scoring record starts to crack?

Despite a decisive win against one of their closest rivals, the crowd last night was far from enraptured, with more applauding than cheering. It was a somewhat ill-tempered affair with nine bookings, including Messi and Suarez, a couple of nearly melees and the odd sight of the Argentine pocket genius giving away a cheap penalty.

Deep down a sense of unease pervades the Camp Nou and may only disappear if Enrique loses his job, probably in the summer recess. The press think they are definitely on to something with him and Messi, a suspicion given succour by Enrique's marked failure to applaud his number ten's latest prizegiving ceremony on Sunday.

To add to their woes, this month the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the ban on Barcelona buying players until January 2016, leaving next summer's long transfer window unopenable.

While their youth academy La Masia remains the stuff of legend for having produced six of Spain's 2010 World Cup team as well as the lion's share of Pep Guardiola's golden generation, including the holy trinity of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, it alone is unlikely to be able to take the strain.

I watched their second eleven Barcelona B in action recently against fellow Liga Adelante (national second division) outfit Ponferradina. The blaugrana reserves had clearly been schooled in their seniors' style, passing confidently and quickly in a 4-3-3 formation and maintaining circulation of the ball.

In 18 year-old striker Adama Traore they had a dangerous young marksman who I would be surprised not to see stepping up to La Liga. He has made one substitute appearance for Barcelona's first team already and the trouble he caused the Ponferradina defence he could surely cause elsewhere.

Croatian midfielder Alen Halilovic, also 18, is another rising star who could well follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who play their trade at Real and Barça respectively.

Their Spanish goalkeeper Adrian Ortolá and centre-backs Frank Bagnack (Cameroon) and Edgar Ié (Portugal) passed the ball out of defence on the deck at every opportunity. But being palpably short of experience with an average age of only 20, they played their way into trouble too many times when a ball into space or touch would have been the better option.

Twice Barça B led by two goals in Ponferrada but twice let their hosts come back to equalize, a crazy match finishing 4:4.

Right now, La Masia's production line is nothing to get excited about, as Barça B dangle one point above the relegation zone of the Spanish second division.

Guardiola has left an enormously long shadow in Catalonia, having raised the bar so high he has sensibly ruled himself out of any return. "You won't see a better Barça team than that one", I opined to a city taxi driver on a recent trip as we talked football the length of my ride from hotel to railway station.

"Oh yes, that's true," he concurred with a sigh of regret.

But last night's team contained seven of the side who started the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United, so it is impossible not to compare Enrique's Barcelona to Guardiola's, and the latter's is still a country mile ahead.

With the Messi-Enrique contratemps, a sense of failure already hangs over this season at Barcelona. But with three trophies still very much up for grabs, the pessimists should really take a back seat.

The acid test could come on the 24th of February when the UEFA Champions League resumes and Barça must travel to Manchester City.

The return leg on the 18th of March is swiftly followed by the clásico with Real, who won comfortably 3-1 at the Bernabeu last October.

This is clearly an unsteady Barcelona in need of transition, but unraveling dynasties takes time.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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