Talk of big clubs being in crisis is almost always annoying. On the one hand, and as Andi Thomas wrote in these pages some time ago, there is the depressing way in which it confirms the monopoly (or duopoly, or quadropoly) of the big to the expense of the small (Arsenal's midseason ‘CRISIS!' pales in comparison, for example, with that which has defined Plymouth Argyle this season). On the other, perhaps less dispiriting but nonetheless irksome, hand, there is the way in which exaggerating any and every difficulty into the caps-lock language of CRISIS elides the rather pleasing nuances inherent to a season's ups and downs.
Neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid (who meet in a potentially league deciding Clasico at the Camp Nou on Saturday night) are in CRISIS! (or even crisis), obviously. But both Spanish giants approach this most pivotal of fixtures on the back of defeats (answers on a postcard if you know the last time that happened) and that places the game in an interesting, if not critical, context.
Lets take the visitors, and league leaders (the gap is currently four points), first.
Unlike the Catalans, it is hard to know where exactly to place Jose Mourinho's Real side in the pantheon of world football. Sure, they have beaten all-comers in Spain, scoring an incredible 107 goals (already, after 33 games, a season record) in amassing 27 wins. But they were beaten fairly comfortably by Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final and have won only one of their 11 clashes with their biggest rivals. Tuesday's defeat, in fact, came on the first occasion that Madrid have faced an opponent from either England, Italy or Germany (the three other ‘Major Leagues'). There would be a simple case to argue, then, for Cristiano Ronaldo and co. being little more than flat track bullies - dominant only in a league designed to serve them (a less ludicrous version of Ramzan Kadyrov's star lined football career), were it not for the fact that three of the four Europa League semi-finalists also play in the league they have eviscerated and that one of those, Athletic Bilbao, delivered a joyous pumping to Manchester United on their way. Real Madrid are, at the same time, great but somewhat untested. This isn't a crisis and nor, even were they to lose to Barcelona or even the league itself (having been 10 points clear at one point), will it become one anytime soon. But it is a tricky situation and should be called as such.
Which is what I'm doing.
A tricky situation, you see, is genuinely interesting. Whereas a real bonafide crisis is interesting in the voyeuristic way that got Lady Chatterley's Lover censored. A tricky situation, on which rests the fate of a leader we know to be brilliant and a player (or players) we know to be great, evokes the all-together more rarified pleasures of an intellectual poser. How, we ask, is Mourinho going to get himself out of this one? Rather like a Raymond Chandler novel (and, incidentally, spending a moment over the thought of Humphrey Bogart playing the special one is more than worthwhile), we know that our hero can get out of it, but are no means certain that he will. The Teutonics or the Tiki-Taka-ers, or both, could really stymie him something rotten. And, what's more, it's not even clear that we neutrals (or ‘readers', to further flog the horse) really want him to. After all, we pretty much know what it'll take.
And that, dear reader (you really should read The Big Sleep, by the way, it's brilliant - much better than this), brings us to his opponents this weekend.
Chelsea, again, showed how best to beat Barcelona. By beating them. Here, because beat means both emerge victorious from an encounter with and, well, hit and hit and hit, is another example of pleasing linguistic nuance. Mourinho, as manager of Chelsea, first discovered the most effective means of disrupting Barcelona's patterns and his former football soldiers offered him a timely reminder last night of its ongoing efficacy.
Pep Guardiola could, probably, have done without players with whom his antithesis remains on (allegedly) intimate terms offering their mentor and his new charges an object lesson in anti-tiki-taka in the first volume of his three-part, season-defining week.
Madrid, because of their lead, the fact that after this weekend their will only be four games left and the wealth of evidence indicating that they can't beat Barcelona, will likely play for a draw. Which means that they don't have tobeat Barcelona only BEAT them. And therein lies the challenge for ‘the greatest team in history' whose tricky situation means that they have to find the solution that eluded them at Stamford Bridge. They have to find this against Madrid and then they have to find it again. With Chelsea visiting the Camp Nou on Tuesday night, Barcelona are in a situation where consecutive draws will end both their major title defences. Which means they need consecutive wins. Again, this is not critical. But it is somewhat fascinating. As a minor adversity, or a great challenge, Barcelona's greatness will be determined by their responses.
Will it be consecutive consecutive league titles and consecutive Champions Leagues (a feat not achieved since the ‘big cup' rebrand)? Or will it be nothing but a domestic cup so poxy that its last winners chucked it under a bus? And if it is just that, will it be Mourinho and Madrid who stop them? Twice? Or will they get nothing either? Spend hundreds of millions only to blow a 10 point lead?
These are not CRISES. They are far more interesting.