Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Cracks appear in the Camp Nou

Barcelona have made a stumbling start to their title defence in Spain.


A clean sweep of domestic and European trophies last season could not have been better for Barcelona and their new manager Luis Enrique, but after seven games and two defeats, the 2015/16 season has shown there are hairline cracks beneath the façade. 

Fourth position in La Liga just will not do for the club's expectant mountain of fans and even more demanding hierarchy, although the faults in the architecture started to show in pre-season as Barça crashed shockingly 4-0 to Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.

A limp effort at clawing back the deficit at the Camp Nou ended in a 1-1 draw and an embarrassing aggregate score overall.

The defence of their title began slowly adequately with 1-0 wins over Athletic Bilbao and Malaga before their first real test away to Atletico Madrid.

Lionel Messi was strangely dropped from the starting lineup for the visit to the Manzanares, a first hint perhaps of waning powers, but the magician returned in the second half and cast his old spells to help the Blaugrana k.o. one of their closest rivals. So far so good, winning while playing badly, the hallmark of champions.

That crucial away win seemed to spell another season of Catalan conquest, an impression Real added to by drawing at home to Gijon and away to Malaga.

A 4-1 win over Levante followed before a result no-one foresaw, a 4-1 thrashing at Celta Vigo.
The Galicians tore their visitors apart and left Gerard Pique and colleagues looking slow and lacking appetite.

Then Messi succumbed to injury and Barcelona lost 2-1 at Sevilla to slip into fourth. The Europa League winners are no slouches it must be said, and Celta have been a revelation too so far, riding as high as second behind league leaders Villareal.

In the Champions League, Barça have been scarcely more impressive. They were held 1-1 away to Roma before two late goals saved their bacon at home to Bayer Leverkusen.

So what has changed this season at Barça?

Injuries to Andres Iniesta and Messi, and the first full season without Xavi, who has gone to pastures, or perhaps sand dunes, new in Qatar have removed the holy trinity from the midfield.

Selling the highly talented but consistently underused Pedro to Chelsea left a gap in attacking options while big money signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal cannot pull on the blaugrana until 2016 when their club's transfer ban expires.

Keeping the ball at will is no longer a given for the side, and replacements Marc Bartra, Munir and Sandro are not of the same calibre as the missing stars.

This means Barça have been on the back foot more than usual, coping with unfamiliar territory. Enrique too has been less keen to use substitutes than he was last season, implying his squad is not as deep as it should be. Barcelona B's pathetic relegation from the second flight last season confirmed there is not much to chew on after the first layer is exhausted.

It seems Barça are trying to haul themselves over the finish line of the Christmas break, after which they can unleash new blood in the form of Turan, Vidal and any new players they can pluck from the January transfer window.

Luckily for them, Luis Suarez is still wearing his scoring boots and Real Madrid have fluffed their lines and failed to hit top spot, hampered as they have been by injuries to Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.

It is much too early to talk of a Catalan crisis but that never stopped the media hitting their familiar response button when Barcelona or Real Madrid fail to win any match impressively.

Barça are only one point off the lead it must be stressed, but the narrative of an empire beginning to creak at the seams is an unavoidable one.

A large chunk of Enrique's team are employed elsewhere in the international break before the rest of October hands them a welcome opportunity to catch Villareal up with home games against lowly Rayo Vallecano and Eibar as well as two clashes with Bate Borisov in the Champions League. Life could be worse.

From mid-November things hot up with the visit of early league-leaders Villareal, the first clásico
at the Bernabeu and the Roma in the Champions League at the Camp Nou. In reality, any game where less than three points are accrued sharpens the knife for Enrique.

The Asturian knows his job is one of the most demanding in world football and nothing less than perfection is required. 

Like Rafael Benitez, he signed up for an impossible job. Yet in his maiden season he handled the media attacks with acumen and shut up his critics with a full house of cups. 

Should Barça stumble in the Champions League this campaign however, as looks increasingly likely, or maintain their wins to losses ratio domestically, the cava of last season will lose its fizz all too quickly.

For the neutral, this title race is already much more interesting than last season's.

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