The departure of Rafa Benitez from Santiago Bernabeu this week, which has been headline news across Spain, Europe and beyond, has somewhat obscured a recent dip in form for Barcelona, who have drawn three of their last four Primera games.
Regardless of events playing out in the capital, La Blaugrana were looking unstoppable a month ago. A shock 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in early October provided the cue for Luis Enrique’s men to embark on a six-match winning run with 21 goals scored and just three conceded.
Barca kept clean sheets in the final four games of that sequence, including one against Real Madrid as Benitez’s men were put ruthlessly to the sword in a 4-0 Clasico thumping at the Bernabeu. A week later, Real Sociedad were comfortably beaten by the same score line at Camp Nou.
Barca’s visit to Mestalla on December 5 in the wake of Gary Neville’s appointment as the new Coach at Valencia heightened expectations that their run could only continue against a team at a thoroughly low ebb despite the arrival of the Englishman.
Barca dominated the match against Los Che, enjoying 71 per cent of possession, but they squandered a hatful of chances in the process. Failing to build on Luis Suarez’s 59th-minute strike, they paid the penalty when the home side stole a point with an 88th-minute equaliser.
Surrendering a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 with Deportivo La Coruna in their next game at Camp Nou, Enrique’s men were accused of having their minds on their forthcoming trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. In reality, it has to be realised that Depor earned the point with a professional display.
Returning from routine wins against Guangzhou and River Plate to lift the trophy, Barca proudly displayed their fifth piece of silverware alongside the previous four they had won in 2015 ahead of their encounter with Real Betis at Camp Nou on December 30.
The 4-0 win over Pepe Mel’s strugglers could have been even more convincing, but contained a fine display of relentlessly attacking football from Barcelona, a fitting tribute to Lionel Messi on his 500th appearance for the club and a reminder of the power of football to entertain.
Tacitly acknowledging the additional strains their Japanese adventure had placed on his men, Enrique had the luxury of leaving Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba unused on the bench, biding his time pending the arrival of Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal after the expiry of Barca’s transfer embargo.
The rested trio all started Barca’s next game against Espanyol at Cornella El-Prat, but the Barcelona derby descended into a dirty, scrappy affair as La Blaugrana again failed to convert numerous goal-scoring opportunities and were frustrated by their neighbours with a blend of physicality and gamesmanship.
The resulting goalless draw – their third stalemate in four games in La Liga – saw Barca toppled as leaders by Atletico Madrid, albeit with a game in hand over Diego Simeone’s side after their Club World Cup exploits.
While some may inwardly grumble, Barcelona’s lull is not a crisis and is not being portrayed as such, even if all has not always run smoothly with the Camp Nou hierarchy. It is just 12 months since an apparent rift between Enrique and Messi looked set to split the powers that be and trigger new elections at the Catalan club.
A year on, those five additions to the trophy cabinet are testament to the wisdom of riding out the storm instead of taking rash and far-reaching decisions. Barca will play through their current lean spell and will come again. Only failure to land another Spanish crown can give genuine cause for alarm.