One of the quirks of the Spanish League calendar this season means that Barcelona’s fixtures mirror those of Real Madrid by a two-week delay. It offers a quick and easy comparison over the two’s relative merits throughout the season without the caveats of who has played the tougher ties, such as last year when almost all of Real’s difficult away games came in one stretch through April.
Which is why Barcelona’s routine 4-1 over Getafe at the weekend was actually very impressive and significant. It meant that, following their 1-0 win at home to Valencia two weeks ago, they had successfully cleared hurdles where Real had already dropped five points this season and extended their lead over the champions to eight after they fell again this time 1-0 to Sevilla.
It was also of significance that the Catalans have already started to right the wrongs of last year by winning at Osasuna and Getafe, the only two away grounds where they lost last year.
And they accomplished the latter whilst not even needing to start Messi for the first time in the League since September 10 last season. Messi, of course, still came on to grab his two customary goals to take his tally to eight in six games this season, but there is a depth to Vilanova’s squad now that wasn’t apparent in the final days of Pep Guardiola’s reign.
In a sense, Guardiola’s final few months very much helped in that regard as his insistence on promoting youth saw Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca given their chance when Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa missed large spells through injury, whilst the singings of Jordi Alba and Alex Song have provided cover that was lacking previously.
That has meant that in Tito’s first four League games, in addition to leaving the returning Villa out of the starting XI every time, he has been able to name big names on the bench. Against Real Sociedad, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Alexis Sanchez were all on the bench, for Osasuna it was Xavi Hernandez, Javier Mascherano and Pedro, against Valencia Alba, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were benched and finally at Getafe Messi was joined on the sidelines by Dani Alves and Mascherano, whilst Alba, Iniesta and Sanchez were all ruled out through injury.
It is a depth that Real should also be familiar with, but their flaws and in particular one of Jose Mourinho’s failing tendencies in recent weeks was shown up as they lost this weekend at a stadium where they had won 6-2 in their previous two visits.
In very similar fashion to the match they lost at Getafe three weeks ago, as soon as things didn’t go completely to plan, Mourinho looked to his bench, as he has done to legendary effect in his coaching career. However, on both occasions his decision-making has been more Championship Manager than unique manager.
The Portuguese has piled on strikers in the hope of finding the elusive goal, but has instead only produced a creative deficit when his side is most in need of invention. On Saturday Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria were sacrificed at half-time, but without their two highest assist-makers of last season, Real only really threatened from set-pieces and one long range effort from Luka Modric, who was forced to carry the burden of trying to unlock the Sevilla defence in only his third Real game.
All of which leaves Real with an eight-point mountain to climb and with a trip to the Camp Nou to come in three weeks’ time. Rarely can a game so early in the season have been termed a title decider.
Even worse for Madridistas is the ignominy of trailing Atletico Madrid in the table. Diego Simeone’s men continued their fine form, just, as they sailed into a 4-0 lead against Rayo Vallecano only to nearly throw it all away by conceding three times in the final 10 minutes. However, Atleti now have seven points from nine to go with their European Super Cup victory and, with Radamel Falcao is such exhilarating form, a return to the Champions League this time next year looks a certainty.