League titles are always nice, but when you're Barcelona, bigger things are always expected. Tomorrow begins a season-defining gauntlet run for the Blaugrana right as they're playing some of their worst soccer in years.
It's fair to say that we've become conditioned to seeing Barcelona play the game at a ridiculous level that enables them to pick apart even the best teams in the world. We expect to see it every time they walk on the pitch, but recently we've not been getting that high performance level.
If Marcellus and Horatio were discussing the state of this Barcelona team, I think they might say something like this: Something is rotten in the state of Catalonia.
Now, that's not to say that the tiki-taka empire that Pep Guardiola built is crumbling to pieces thanks to devilish internal political struggles and megalomaniacal leadership (that's Real Madrid). The empire is quite stable, but the once-perfect shining armor of invincibility that Barcelona has worn over the past few years is starting to show signs of wear. There's even some rust in a few spots.
So the question must be asked, what's wrong with Barcelona?
It's not an easy question to answer, but we can certainly discuss what is obvious and out in the open for us to see. The biggest issue at the moment is form and Barca's lack of it. We wrote a lot about this topic in the wake of AC Milan's defeat of Barca in their Champions League first leg match. I myself said it was the worst performance I've seen from a Barcelona side in years. Everyone has a bad day from time to time, but that was like watching Superman try to battle against kyrptonite poisoning.
In the days after that match my first thought was yes, it was awful, but let's see how they respond. After watching their only match since that loss, along with looking back at the game before that, I'm not feeling much better about things with the Catalan side.
Barcelona may have won their last two league games (Granada before Milan, Sevilla after) but they were both 2-1 victories that required them to stage second half comebacks after falling behind in the first half and looking generally lackluster.
Andres Iniesta's current form is a big part of the struggles. His form at the moment is poor, easily some of the worst soccer we've ever seen him play since he became a regular in the Barca lineup. His slump is effecting the team in general, but it's also hurting Cesc Fàbregas, or at least it did against Milan.
It's no secret that Cesc is being groomed to be the "New Xavi" in the Barcelona midfield, preparing for the inevitable day with Barca's midfield wizard hangs up his boots. We've seen Cesc make a steady progression this season and begin to look more comfortable in the roll, but whatever positive strides he'd made appeared to hit the wall at the San Siro.
With Iniesta completely off his game, Cesc when into some kind of strange rogue headless chicken mode that only served to further exacerbate Barca's problems. The movement and the precision passing that is required to make the Barcelona system tick wasn't there, and it's a potential concern that Cesc might not be the right guy for the role. Pep Guardiola sure seemed to struggle with using him last year, and while Tito Vilanova has made a concerted effort to better integrate Cesc into the system, you wonder if it's just not working.
Of course, this might all be a bump in the road, but it's worth thinking about. If we're going to discuss Vilanova's effect on Fàbregas, we need to touch on how Vilanova's absence could be hurting Barcelona.
The first-year boss remains in New York City undergoing cancer treatment, and while there's absolutely nothing that can be done about the situation, it does appear to be catching up with the players. That's certainly not a shot at Jordi Roura's ability, but I think we're seeing that the influence of Vilanova is much bigger than anyone might have expected.
There's been a great deal of talk about how Pep Guardiola still has to prove he's a great coach when he joins Bayern Munich because his success at Barcelona was "likely down" to the quality of the personnel more than his coaching ability.
I think Barcelona's current struggles may put a major dent in this theory. Just because there is so much talent on the pitch for the Blaugrana, it doesn't mean that things are just going to always work perfectly. Coaching still plays a part in how well a team plays, and considering how many times we've seen a good coach lift a bad team to unexpected heights, why is it so crazy to think that a great coach could make a group of great players into an even better team?
I'm digressing a bit, but I really wanted to make that point, so I hope you'll forgive that tangent.
Vilanova is clearly an important part of making Barcelona a better team, and not having him there day in, day out is clearly not making anything easier at the moment. Now, that's not to say that it would have changed any of the results we've seen over the past few weeks, but if you think I'm completely off base, then why is team president Sandro Rosell flying to New York to discuss the possibility of Vilanova returning to coach the team for the second AC Milan match?
Barcelona's season is at a real crossroads at the moment. By the end of the week there's a real possibility that they could be out of the Copa del Rey and preparing for a huge must-win game against Milan having suffered two-straight losses to their biggest rivals. They could also be in the cup final and all but have the La Liga trophy in their cabinet. But given their current form, can anyone be confident of the second outcome being the most likely?
I think Lionel Messi has the right idea based on his comments to Barca TV:
"We must not drive ourselves crazy about the result in Milan or the first half against Sevilla," he said. "We have to pull ourselves together because there are some decisive games coming up."
Messi also understands the pressure his team faces.
"In front of our own fans we do not have any other option than to go for a win against Real Madrid," Messi said. "We cannot start thinking that a goalless draw would see us through. We have to be at our best against Real Madrid, because otherwise we will not get through the tie."
He's right, Barca need to be at their best. But can they simply "turn things on" again after some recent struggles? We're about to find out.
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