Ever since Lionel Messi came onto the scene, La Liga title races have been monotone. One team, usually Barcelona, dominates from start to finish and keep adding to their tally.
Whenever a team not named Barcelona wins, it looks, and feels, like an anomaly. However, this season, Barcelona winning the league would be the anomaly. The giants’ start to the season was lacklustre, and they are only finding form in January after losing several points due to errors and less-than-adequate lineups.
In their first 15 games of the season, Barcelona lost four times while drawing the same number of games. Players like Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, Clément Lenglet, and Lionel Messi were severely underperforming, while others continued to have their ups and downs. The Catalans made four errors leading to goals to end 2020, one each from Ronald Araujo, Lenglet, Neto, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen. All these errors were unprovoked, amateur mistakes and that should never happen with Barcelona.
In fact, Barcelona ended the year the same way they opened it by drawing. This time, Eibar, a team that usually gets a thumping loss at Camp Nou, won their first point away to Barça. Ronald Araujo was on the end of a rookie error, and the hosts had to be rescued by Ousmane Dembele who came on as a substitute.
However, in 2021, Barcelona look like a different team. A lot has changed since Messi’s interview with Jordi Évole.
First, the captain himself feels happier, as he claimed, and the team looks set to revolve around him again. Then, the team looks way more composed, as if leaving 2020 relieved them of a heavy burden.
For example, against Granada on Saturday, Frenkie de Jong made a mistake in the opening five minutes of the game. Marc-André Ter Stegen parried the shot that followed the Dutchman’s weak pass, and almost forgetting all about it, de Jong had a top-notch display.
All in all, 2021 has started well for Barça. Three away wins in a week, and the Catalans were two points off Madrid following their 4-0 victory at Estadio Los Carmenes. And after an unbeaten run of eight games in the league, and just one loss in 2021 so far, Culés might want to entertain the thought that they can disrupt both Atlético and Real Madrid and win the league, or at least come close.
However, as it stands, it all seems like a distant dream. The recent displays might have shown Culés that Barça can play well, but often require a reality check to get going in front of goal. The last three opponents the Blaugranas faced were rock-bottom Huesca, Athletic Club with Marcelino managing his first game and a decent Granada.
Playing against Granada and Bilbao away from home is far from a simple task. Last season, Barça lost to both sides without scoring. However, these are the games that define a season. If Ronald Koeman could not win against those sides, the fans would call for his head.
Not to mention Atlético are still first in La Liga, and seem to be running away with the title. Los Colchoneros were meant to play against Athletic Club before the Granada-Barcelona game, but a snowstorm got in the way and postponed it. After Atletico’s win over Sevilla and Eibar, though, they are ten points clear off Barcelona and four clear off Real Madrid, with two games in hand.
Assuming Atléti win those two games, they will have a 16-point lead on Barça. This margin looks too big for Barça, or any team, to leapfrog Diego Simeone’s men. Nonetheless, Luis Suarez’s teammates have never been in the La Liga driving seat. This means that the pressure could still get to their head and they might lose many points soon.
Atlético already lost against Cornella in the Cup, Real Madrid in December and Bayern Munich back in October. Barcelona could destabilise the current leaders by beating them at Camp Nou in May, especially if Koeman’s tactics persist.
The sudden change to a 4-3-3 by Koeman came after five months of stubbornly trying to fit four attackers in a 4-2-3-1. The 4-3-3 revitalised the side and propelled Messi’s teammates towards a comeback against Athletic Club and demolition of Diego Martinez’s Granada. Clearly, this lineup fits everyone better than the unbalanced 4-2-3-1.
Ousmane Dembélé, de Jong, Pedri, Messi, and Griezmann all found form in the 4-3-3, and they do not look like stopping anytime soon. Even when one or all of them have less-pleasing performances, the others come and help them get through their rough patch, because the 4-3-3 is much more balances, and allows every individual enough room to create and slaughter.
For example, Dembélé had a bad display against Granada but still registered an assist thanks to Griezmann’s brilliant off the ball run. Even against Cornella, Pedri was able to come into the lineup seamlessly and rescued the game giving two assists.
This is what champions do. When one player falls, others help him get back on his feet. This is how Atlético won their last two games in the league. With Suarez, everyone thought Atlético could win the league because they had a proven winner through their ranks. Well, Barcelona have Messi and a few other champions in their side.
Whenever champions fall, they only need a few games to get back up. Barcelona fell really hard against Bayern in August, and it took five months for them to get over the humiliation. This week might prove crucial to their chances of being in a title race. Until then, let’s hope Barcelona can keep their excellent form and end the campaign in better shape than the last one.