Away form sinks Barça but do they even care?
Saturday 14 January 2012
Even the greatest teams in history sometimes have to prioritise.
That is one possible reason why the club who have turned Fifa's annual world player gala into their own AGM have won only three away games in La Liga all season.
Tomorrow, Barcelona will wear the Fifa World Club Champions 2011 badge on their shirts for the first time in the league and Cesc Fabregas will go in search of his 10th goal in 12 league starts, but they will probably take to the field eight points adrift of leaders Real Madrid, who play Mallorca tonight.
Barcelona have now dropped 11 points on their travels, slipping far enough behind Jose Mourinho's team that head-to-head dominance will no longer save them – they could beat Real in the season's second clasico in April but still have to give up their crown.
Madrid have won 21 of their last 22 matches while Guardiola is chalking up his worst numbers away from home since he took over in 2008. In his first season, Barça picked up 21 points from their first eight away fixtures. In his second season, that tally dropped to 18 and last season it went up to the full 24 points.
This season, just 13 points have been picked up in a run of lacklustre performances including four draws and a defeat against Getafe. Of the three victories, two have been narrow wins against modest opponents. The only away day of note was the 3-1 win at the Bernabeu over Real Madrid last month.
Still invincible in big games, Barça are struggling with the more mundane. They switched off after going 1-0 up against Espanyol last weekend just as they had done earlier in the season away at Real Sociedad – both games ended in draws. "These are not the numbers of a team that is poised to win the league," said coach Pep Guardiola this week and he was spotted conferring with his press officer to confirm just how many points were still in play this season ahead of a midweek press conference. Once rehearsed, he was able to remind everyone there were 63 points up for grabs and that meant there was still everything to play for. He would never admit to there being a bigger fish than La Liga to catch this season, but there is.
Winning the Champions League would make Barcelona the first team to defend successfully the trophy in its current format. They would be the first side since Arrigo Sacchi's Milan in 1990 to retain the European Cup and Guardiola would become only the second coach after Bob Paisley to win it three times.
It would also be Barcelona's third in four seasons and, perhaps most importantly for the fans, it would see them hone in on the achievements of the Real side of the late fifties who won it five years running. During that run, Real won their domestic league just twice and, with the European Cup now being an altogether more exhausting affair, Guardiola's squad cannot fight with equal force on both fronts.
While the decision to spend the summer transfer funds on Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez has paid off in terms of the individual success of both those players, it also meant that they did not fatten up a bare-bones rearguard that often sees Guardiola resting first-choice defenders for those theoretically easier league games.
One of those stand-ins, young centre-back Andreu Fontas tore cruciate ligaments in the second-leg cup win over Osasuna on Thursday and will probably miss the rest of the season. Full-back Maxwell has been sold to Paris St-Germain and midfielder Seydou Keita's month away at the African Cup of Nations will see Javier Mascherano needed more there. So with Carles Puyol's ability to play three games a week fading fast, there simply is not the defensive strength in depth.
Guardiola has already said he will not be signing players this month but plans are already being put in place for a bid for Milan's Brazilian centre-back Thiago Silva at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Guardiola's morphing of Barcelona's 4-3-3 into a 3-4-3 with Fabregas at the top of a midfield diamond just behind Lionel Messi may have been inspired by the desire to integrate the former Arsenal captain but it also conveniently requires fewer defenders.
One of the coach's mantras is, "the greatest risk in football is to take no risks" – who needs specialist defenders if you've always got the ball? But always having the ball requires an intensity of movement and ferocity of work-rate – not to mention always having your best players on the pitch – that simply cannot be maintained in every game. Hence Barça's heroic 3-2 win over Milan at San Siro this season coming just a few days before they lost to little Getafe in the league.
Tomorrow, it will be business as usual at home against Real Betis. The aggregate score so far this season in the league at the Nou Camp is 39-0. But away from home the struggles are likely to continue. In pursuit of bigger beasts, more modest prey will be allowed to escape with their lives, and with a ruthless Real Madrid already taking advantage, it is slowly but surely costing Barcelona the title. Missing out on the league in his first season would be tough on free-scoring Fabregas but not if he then lifts the European Cup at the end of the season. "We need to put a run of four or five away wins together," said Guardiola this week adding: "We need to be more ambitious".
As far as the ultimate ambition – furthering the team's claim to be the "all-time greatest" – goes, the away day that really counts this season comes in Munich's Allianz Arena on 19 May. Win that and all else will be forgotten.
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