Last year, at the beginning of the season, I was reflecting on the sort of season the Catalan giants were going to have this year/season. I said inter alia:
What kind of season is FC Barca going to have with this new season? As a committed and passionate Barca fan, I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. You may be wondering why I would be worried or concerned about this judging by Barca’s superlative performance over the past 3 seasons. And of course, your musings would be justified. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that the journey for titles and trophies will be much harder for Barca this time around.
Let me start with their lack-luster preseason games. Based on their success last season, you might expect that the La Liga and Champions League victors would easily dominate their preseason matches. Having partied and rested for these games, you would expect them to show mental and match fitness that testify to their current dominance in this sport. But that was far from what actually obtained. Is it that the players are already burned out? Or could it be that having won 14 titles in three years, they now feel like they’ve done it all and so they now lack the fire-in-the-belly required to hunt for more trophies?
It does seem like my fears has been realized, doesn’t it?
As any sincere watcher and admirer of Barcelona will tell you, they have not been as smooth, sharp and dominant as they have been in the recent past. Their defense formations have regularly come up short; their overall technical dominance in the middle of the field has lagged considerably, and unsurprisingly, their main strikers (with the exception of Messi ) have performed below par. It is therefore not bewildering that what began as a promising season for last year’s league title holders—with the 5-0 demolition of Villareal—is at this point all but lost.
Tormented by multiple player injuries, the blaugrana have nevertheless managed to cling on. Despite the devastating injuries to Affelay, Villa, Sanchez, Pedro, Busquets, Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, and Fabregas at various times in this season, the team remains committed to excellence. It is true that they’ve dropped 10 points behind their archrivals Real Madrid when they lost or tied some very critical away games, but their spirit is not altogether broken. They still believe they can close the 10-point gap even if they do not necessarily win the league title this year. Besides, there are still other tournaments which they realistically have a good shot at winning besides the title.
So what happened to this great team that we’ve all come to love? How come they are struggling to win matches, or to maintain their lead in a match? In some of these recent matches, they conceded a goal first and had to come from behind to tie the game. What is going on?
Apart from these beleaguering injuries, it has now become clear (to me anyway) that Barca’s string of heart-wrenching losses and hapless ties can be critically traced to some weakness in the backline. This is not to say that the present cast of defenders is not doing their best. However, as anyone must have noticed, they lose concentration/focus every now and then with some sloppy defending, or some unnecessary passing right in the danger zone when the wisest course of action would have been to clear the ball from the 6 or 18 yard box. On some cases, the defenders have been caught napping or inattentive to the man they were supposed to mark. A number of their conceded goals came from such sloppy defending and not necessarily from the outstanding ingenuity of would-be attackers.
It is pertinent to note that Barca has a number of potent strikers and super-creative midfielders—and more are coming in or set to come in from the youth ranks. The most pressing and urgent area of Barca’s line-up that requires a shot in the arm at this time is the back line. It is not enough to be able to score goals as we’ve all seen—you need to have defenders in truly remarkable form as well to counter whatever a worthy opponent will bring. One hopes the people at Barca’s helm of affairs will seriously look into getting a great defender to boost Barca’s diminishing defensive ranks.
Be that as it may, it is still heart-warming to note that despite Barca’s fall off the perch of la Liga, or the possible exit of Pep Guardiola as team coach, or the debilitating injuries that has helped to take the shine off Barca’s usually impressive performances in recent times, the Catalan giants continue to soldier on –much to the delight of their fans all over the world. The league title may be lost at this point nevertheless there is still much to play for, to fight for. Their performance for the rest of the Champions League, or for the final of the Copa Del Rey, will indeed show whether they will end this season with a bang or a whimper.