BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 08: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona complains to referee Javier Alvarez after a disallowed goal during the la Liga match between RCD Espanyol and FC Barcelona at Cornella-El Prat Stadium on January 8, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Barcelona have looked like the best team in the world at times this season, but their road form in La Liga suggests that they can't keep pace with Real Madrid.
Three wins, four draws and one loss. Just 12 goals for and nine goals against in eight games. This sounds like it could be the road record of a Europa League contender, but it is instead the road record of mighty Barcelona. The reigning La Liga and UEFA Champions League title holders have taken just 13 out of a possible 24 away points through 17 rounds of play in La Liga.
Compare that to title contenders Real Madrid. Los Merengues have a record of 7-1-1 on the road, with 27 goals for and just five goals against. Four of those five goals were conceded in matches away to Valencia and Sevilla. They shut out Malaga on the road. They also recorded a 4-0 victory away to Espanyol, Barcelona's Catalonia rivals
Los Cules dropped another two road points on Sunday in a 1-1 draw against Espanyol, and it can hardly be called a lucky point for the hosts. Not only did they play very good football that was deserving of a draw, but it was a repeat of what the viewing public has seen from Barcelona throughout the season. Away from the Camp Nou, a draw is the most likely result for Barcelona, a characteristic that isn't exactly befitting of the best team in the world.
This isn't meant as a diss, unless it's a diss to say that Barcelona are considerably less consistent on the road than Real Madrid. They don't have the road record that is required to win La Liga, mostly because of the brilliance of the team that is currently top of the table. Madrid are now five points adrift at the top of La Liga, and though Barcelona defeated them at the Santiago Bernabeu, they look very much like the second best team in Spain at the moment.
What's gone wrong for Barcelona on the road? Obviously, it's impossible to pick out any one thing. A team of Barcelona's talent doesn't simply stop playing great football and stop scoring goals because of one singular factor, though there is one giant elephant in the room regarding Lionel Messi and his teammates' inability to step up when he isn't at his best.
It's important to separate out what went wrong in the Espanyol game and what has gone wrong in previous poor road performances. First of all, there was an inherent formation issue for Barcelona on Sunday. Not to harp on formations too much, because they are not the be-all, end-all of football and they had less to do with the outcome of the game than individual performances, but it's worth mentioning.
Barcelona started in a 3-4-3 formation with Lionel Messi at the tip of a diamond midfield and Daniel Alves as a right forward. Defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets could drop into the back line while other players shifted, forming a back four. However, Espanyol was very quick on the counter in this game and Barcelona often failed to shift to a back four before Espanyol got their attackers forward. Against Espanyol's 4-2-3-1 setup, the back three looked vulnerable.
Espanyol's second best chance of the game, after the goal, was an example of this. On a counter attack, Joan Verdu lost the Barcelona defense and found himself with a completely free header at the back post. Thievy Bifouma provided the cross, and his run wide pulled the defense apart. Victor Valdes made a stunning save, but it was a fantastic example of why Barcelona's back three is often playing with fire against counter-attacking teams with one and three forward formations.
This problem partially reared its ugly head on the goal, when Carles Puyol lost Alvaro Vasquez at the back post, but that perhaps had more to do with Puyol making an individual error than any kind of inherent formation flaw. In any event, there was a massive gap between Puyol and the next defender, leaving space at the back post for Espanyol players to get into a dangerous area, unmarked. Whether due to tactics or individual errors, it was a huge problem, and it's an error that, for whatever reason, Barcelona just don't make at home.
However, the blame for this draw will not fall on Carles Puyol or Pep Guardiola. Instead, the man who is likely to catch the majority of the criticism in the papers is Lionel Messi. Depending on how one looks at it, this could be abysmal or absolutely perfect timing. Messi is all but set to capture the Ballon d'Or on Monday as the best player in the world during the calendar year 2011. A number of Messi detractors say that he has better teammates around him than Cristiano Ronaldo or any other major star outside of Spain's big two, and that his goal and assist tallies are inflated as a result.
When someone reaches the heights that Messi has reached, both in his personal statistical tallies and in his success with his team, there must be a brigade of people who find every reason to detract from their accomplishments. After what happened on Sunday and what's happened over the first half of the La Liga season, it's astonishing that these people have any ammunition.
Messi was not at his best on Sunday. He was by no means poor, but he was certainly average. When Lionel Messi is average, Barcelona are usually average. Sometimes, they need him to be truly spectacular to squeak out the minimum acceptable result. As good as his co-Ballon d'Or finalist Xavi is and as good as the rest of their teammates are, Barcelona depends as much on Messi as any team depends on one player.
In three of Barcelona's road matches where they have dropped points -- against Espanyol, Real Sociedad and Getafe -- Messi has been either average or below average. He has, at least partially, taken the blame for these poor results, and that blame was at least partially deserved. In the two other road matches where Barcelona dropped points -- 2-2 draws against Athletic Bilbao and Valencia -- Messi bailed out his team. Barcelona were far from their best against Athletic and Valencia and probably deserved to lose both games, but squeaked out a point in both due to Messi's brilliance.
Why this is the case is a question for an entirely different column. Completely independent of why Barcelona are so reliant on Messi and why Pep utilized a questionable set of tactics on Sunday, there are issues at Barcelona. They would not be issues at any club but Real Madrid and Barcelona, as everyone else would be fairly content with finishing second in their league and placing as one of the best two or three clubs in the world, but a different standard is currently applied to the Blaugranas. They are supposed to be the best. Three wins and a plus-three goal differential from eight road games is unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid defeated Granada 4-1 on Saturday, and they didn't even look good. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a nice goal in garbage time, but he looked fairly average before that. Though Granada are not as good of a team as Espanyol, the point still stands that Madrid were able to record an emphatic win without a good performance from Ronaldo. Karim Benzema is better than David Villa was before he got injured. This might be controversial, but Mesut Özil is better than Andres Iniesta at present. Sergio Ramos and Pepe are just as good as Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, while young Raphael Varane is worlds better than anything Barca has in reserve.
As long as Lionel Messi is simply very good and not playing like the best player in the world, Barcelona will look very good, but nothing like the best team in the world. Regardless of the result of the first edition of El Clasico, that's a title currently reserved for Los Merengues, who look like they can lose the second Clasico outright and still win the league.
Barcelona return home to face Real Betis next week, a match which they will probably win with relative ease. Their following two matches are away to Malaga and Villarreal. They are tough tests, but also games that Barcelona need to win if they want to say they are currently as good as their title rivals. If Barcelona finish with anything but nine points out of their next three matches, the title could belong to Madrid in January.