If any of you have ever seen The Departed (no spoilers here), do you remember that part in the elevator where you thought it was about to end well and then it suddenly didn’t end well at all? With this win over Atlético Madrid on Sunday, La Liga has become that elevator scene. And yes, Real Madrid also won against Villareal, but they were anything but convincing – and once again, dubious referee decisions (yes, again) allowed Real back into the match. FC Barcelona are closing up the gap, and Sevilla don’t appear to be going anywhere. While this ain’t Boston, that elevator scene might be playing out over the next few weeks.
Hey, Luis Enrique used those very same words. He was referring, of course, to being able to withstand other teams’s pressure. It’s no secret, of course, that teams have been using this strategy for a while, knowing how the Barcelona style of play depends on ball control and possession. Teams that have had success against Barcelona have implemented that very same strategy time and time again with Luis Enrique teams (Celta beat them 4-3, Athletic Bilbao took a 2-0 lead in Copa, Valencia almost snatched a victory earlier this season). Oftentimes, Barcelona’s superior talent is enough to see them through, but the opposition can make life difficult for them. Despite this, with the match against Atlético Madrid that saw Barça advance to their fourth straight Copa final we learned that maybe Luis Enrique’s side has learned how to suffer.
A match between Barcelona and the opposition from the north is always sure to be a good one. With Paco Alcácer starting in place of Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi and Neymar up front, the midfield was made up of André Gomes, Arda Turan, and Rafinha. The defense included Aleix Vidal, Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu. With Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, the match was off.
Villareal, with the best defense in La Liga, hosted Barcelona, with the best offense in La Liga, on Sunday. The match was complicated from the beginning, but it proved to be even more so as the game went on.
Saturday will mark the 265th Clásico meeting between these two teams, the best in Spain for many years now. For Barça, this particular match is crucial, as Madrid sit six points ahead of them in La Liga standings. Cutting their lead to three would be a great result if Barcelona can get a win. Despite their bad play of late, it’s not impossible. In fact, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, and Alvaro Morata are now definitely out for Madrid while Andrés Iniesta might make a return from his knee injury suffered against Valencia.
Barcelona have walked away with a win in each of their last 22 home games against Granada, and today’s match was no exception. Rafinha Alcántara’s goal was the difference as Barça won 1-0 in a game where both sides played uninspiring football. Granada played good defense which, added to the lack of finishing up top, led to a single goal and not much else for Barcelona.
Disclaimer right away: This article is by no means a criticism of Javier Mascherano. He is a living legend at the club and one of my favorite players ever. The six years he’s been a member of the team have been fruitful – 18 trophies – and he’s been a great contributor to winning. He’s not afraid to get down and dirty defensively and has brought grit to our back line. But he’s essentially been playing out of position for six years. Which is why it’s not blasphemy, in my opinion, to suggest he ought to be replaced by Samuel Umtiti.
Barça’s 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao was an interesting game, and an exciting one to watch. It was a rainy night at the San Mamés, a night when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez weren’t at the top of their games, missing several chances to score. Their defense was having some trouble with the high pressure Athletic Bilbao were playing with, and Barça’s midfield had to help break the pressure. Arda Turan lifted a cross into the box for Ivan Rakitić to head home, and Barcelona left the stadium full of 50,000 fans with an away victory. But that wasn’t the biggest statement made on Sunday night. That would be the play of Marc-André ter Stegen.
Here’s the thing. Even if Barcelona didn’t already beat Manchester City two years ago with basically the same exact team they have now, and even if they hadn’t beaten Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich team in the Champions League, there’s no reason to worry. Because they did, and they will again. There’s no reason to fear City.