Barca in cruise control, not crisis

It was laughable a week ago and it is laughable still. The idea that Barcelona were in crisis emerged ahead of their Champions League clash with Milan last week. They went on to beat the Italians 3-1, and comfortably it has to be said. On Sunday night, they once again came out winners – not as comfortably but winners all the same – against Real Betis.

The win leaves Barcelona where they have been since the opening round of La Liga, on top. After Atletico Madrid’s draw at El Madrigal, they have now extended their lead to three points while they remain a healthy distance ahead of rivals, Real Madrid.  In Europe, they are faring much the same. The Catalans have made light work of running away with the lead in Group H. Given their impressive run of results on all fronts, the question is begged as just to how exactly the idea of a ‘crisis’ at Barca was ever mentioned. But there is an explanation.

Los Azulgranas have been over the past three to four years arguably the best team in the world. They will go down as one of the best ever. Not only have they won countless titles, but, they have often done so in style. Their brand of football – one based on playing with the ball, keeping possession and breaking or gnawing away at opposition defences until they are forced implode – is highly attractive and has won many admirers.

But, ever since their loss to Bayern Munich last season the alarm bells have been ringing with more frequency. And, though results continue to be achieved, Barcelona are not playing quite at the level they are, or were, capable of. Yet, this does not mean they are not playing good – far from it.

Against Betis, again, Barca were not at their best. But, they were still darn good. They had significantly less possession than usual while the hosts actually had more total shots, though less on target. Nevertheless, the reigning champions came away with a 4-1 win, with two goals from Cesc Fabregas, one from Neymar and a gem from Pedro.

It seems that Barcelona, rather than being in a state of crisis, have just become the victims of their own success. So high have they raised the bar in recent years that any drop off in form – even if results remain outstanding – is enough to trigger the alarmists. And this is very much the case with Lionel Messi.

Since picking up a hamstring injury late last term, the Argentine has not yet returned to his peak. He appears slightly slower, his reaction time is off by a beat and he does not run so quickly. He even seems a little aloof, not wholly comfortable with the changes Tata Martino has brought and the presence of Neymar.

On Sunday, Messi’s bad luck continued. He was forced to retire from the field after just 20 minutes, with the same hamstring injury as before, albeit in the other leg. It will have critics again doubting, yet despite his problems with injury, he still has scored 12 goals in all competitions – a return most strikers would die for at this stage of the season.

While Messi’s season continued to underwhelm, Cristiano Ronaldo’s continues to overwhelm. Another hat-trick – his second of the season – guided Real Madrid to an emphatic 5-1 over Real Sociedad. The Portuguese now has 24 goals in all competitions. He simply cannot stop scoring. Meanwhile, Almeria cannot stop winning, at least now.

Francisco Rodriguez’s men have now won three in a row. Rodri was again the hero, though this time his goal was a little more legitimate. The victory sees them safe of the relegation zone but only by goal difference. Yes, they still have a long way to go.

Read more from Frank Tigani at The Divine Ponytail.