After somewhat unconvincing wins against Sevilla and Osasuna in two of their three away league games to date, Barcelona’s trip to Deportivo la Coruna on Saturday was expected to be another tricky test.
The so called 'FIFA virus' affecting players who had been all over the globe representing their countries in recent days, a return to Champions League football upcoming on Tuesday and the basic lack of a natural centre-back were all logical reasons to suggest exactly that. Yet, 18 minutes in they looked like Pep Guardiola’s vintage side at their best, tearing into Depor from the off to score three superb goals and leave the Riazor stunned.
The faces of those Depor fans in the crowd, and even their manager on the sidelines, said it all. “Oh God, how many is this going to be?”
But instead of being able to pile on the goals and rest players for a packed schedule in the next few weeks, Barca made things difficult for themselves by conceding four times via the full house of defensive ineptitude: an unnecessarily conceded penalty, a goalkeeping mistake, a free-kick and an outrageous own-goal from Jordi Alba.
Thankfully for Tito Vilanova he didn’t, as some had predicted, rest Lionel Messi after his exertions with Argentina last week. It was the World Player of the Year who had smacked in Barca’s early third and punished Depor again with two immaculate finishes either side of half-time to ensure a rollercoaster three points for his side.
Last season it was dropped points away from home early in the campaign that left Barca with a points deficit on Real Madrid that they never made up. The dependency on Messi then seemed problematic as in games where he didn’t score at Valencia, Getafe, Espanyol and Villarreal, Barcelona failed to win. The concern remains that in such a highly talented squad there should be a greater distribution of goals. In the Catalans four away trips in the league this season they have scored 14 goals, seven of them netted by Messi, whilst he has also set-up another three.
All of which makes analysing Barca’s start to the season somewhat difficult. It is hard to tell if this is a side steamrolling their way to the title that will only get better with the return of Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and possibly even a centre-back in January, or one for which some huge cracks after being papered over by their biggest ‘crack’ – Spanish for star – and who will be found out sooner rather than later.
Whatever the case may be, Barca need to keep clocking over their impressive points tally as they aren’t even clear at the top after a good weekend for the top four. Real Madrid cruised to a routine win over Celta Vigo to stay in contention thanks to goals in either half from Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo, but Malaga and Atletico Madrid had to rely on late winners to dispose of Valladolid and Real Sociedad respectively.
Joaquin was Los Boquerones villain turned hero, as he tapped in the winner three minutes from time just moments after missing a penalty to secure a 2-1 win.
Radamel Falcao meanwhile turned up late to his weekly dual with Messi and Ronaldo, but eventually joined the party, curling home a stunning free-kick as stoppage time loomed to seal Atelti’s tenth straight victory and at the same time inflict Sociedad’s first home defeat in six months.
That goal kept Atleti tied with Barca at the top on 22 points, whilst Malaga and Real remain five and eight points back respectively.