Barcelona go into Sunday’s El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu level with points from Real Madrid in first place in the league, and having conceded only one goal in the league all season.
Eyebrows were raised when the club splashed €145 million on players in the summer, despite well-documented financial difficulties, but at first glance the numbers would suggest the bet was paying off on the pitch.
Soccer stats should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt.
The last six league games without conceding have come against Real Valladolid, Cadiz, Elx and Real Mallorca, teams not known for scoring chances.
Even the statistics will not say that many times only the amazing form of the goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has held the opponent.
It’s a different story when the big boys come to the party, and especially when you run out of first-choice defenders to take them on.
This season, Barcelona have already scored seven goals in four Champions League games, losing two, drawing one and winning one.
Wednesday’s intense 3-3 draw against Inter Milan, Loved by neutrals but hated by Barcelona manager Xavi, it probably means they will have to start planning their Europa League campaign soon.
Inter need only beat Viktoria Plzen, who have scored 16 goals in four games so far, to prevent Barcelona from qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages for the second year in a row.
Next up is the Clasico, and Real Madrid, who are up there with the biggest of all ‘big boy’ competitions.
If Barcelona loses against Real, it will be bad.
Bad news for Barcelona
The two sides are neck and neck at the top of the table, having dropped to two points from a possible 24 after an unbeaten start to the season.
Something has to give and there were hints of where that will happen in the last few Champions League games for all to see.
Real Madrid traveled to Warsaw to face Shakhtar Donetsk and it took Antonio Rudiger’s last-gasp header to secure a point.
Traveling to Poland having already collected nine points, there may be a slight lull in their performance, as well as a group round.
In Barcelona, Xavi rallied, described the game as a “cup final” and for the first 45 minutes it looked like everything might go to plan.
There was pressure at the top of the pitch, lots of crosses, shots from outside the area and players finding themselves between the lines.
Everything was fine, until the break. What could go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, almost everything really. They picked it up early in the second half and then the floodgates opened.
From the moment Gerard Pique forgot to look at Inter’s attackers and conceded the first goal, the game changed from a measured and planned approach to box-to-box football. Pique, Eric Garcia and Marcos Alonso would never have been able to cope with it.
Barcelona played the game as if there was a minute left. The match became a lottery and the best you can say is that Ter Stegen is going to finish with at least two goals down which means there is the slimmest chance of going into the next round.
So what we have now is a Barcelona that can only do what Xavi wants for 45 minutes, a team that is fine until things get difficult and then they can’t handle themselves. A team with two ways of thinking about what to do – Xavi wants control but the players prefer to attack quickly.
It’s clear that Xavi is only in the first phase of this new educational process at the Nou Camp, which is very bad news when you’re faced with the fact that he graduated with honors at Real Madrid years ago and knows how to rise through the ranks. it’s really important.
So what are the key elements of this Sunday’s Classic?
Ter Stegen has helped illuminate the stark reality of what is happening at the moment and without him it is hard to imagine where the club would be.
No one is sure who will be at the other end, with Thibaut Courtois out for the last three games with a back injury and still unable to train.
Andriy Lunin has filled in for the Belgian with distinction, but somehow he can’t quite inspire that match-winning, difference-making confidence that Courtois has. But then – apart from the opponent at the other end, maybe – who could?
Forget being a goalkeeper – Courtois is one of the most influential players this season.
What about the state of the defense?
The Champions League has shown us that Barcelona is a team that does not adapt to the counterattacks of its opponents. When they control the game, they are able to defend as a team, but when they get back to box-to-box football they are there for the taking.
Expect Real Madrid to defend high from time to time, but are mainly concerned with waiting for Barcelona to lose possession and counter-attack as only they know how.
Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde, or whoever is playing, is scary for this fragile looking Barcelona side, because Real Madrid are among the best in the world in that aspect of the game.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have Eder Militao in defense, who lost the Champions League game on Tuesday but should be fit for the Clasico. He is one of the best central defenders around.
Strong, physical, has excellent anticipation, is quick, dangerous and tenacious in defense and, although Barcelona’s absence has cost defenders dearly, Real Madrid have either David Alaba or Nacho to replace the injured Rudiger.
Is Rodrygo the new Benzema?
Rodrygo is good, but not at the level of Karim Benzema, not yet, by a long shot. But at least Real Madrid know that they have someone who can take on the role of the French striker.
He links up well with teammates, can draw defenders away, sometimes drops deep and can score goals. Against Atletico Madrid, before the international break, he was far and away the best player.
It can be confidence to play out wide or to identify the areas that will cause the most problems for the opposition, including the central position that Benzema usually occupies.
The key on Sunday could be in midfield and it’s safe to assume that Real manager Carlo Ancelotti is not about to repeat the shrewd decision he made in last year’s El Clasico when he opted to play Luka Modric as a false nine and was done. Wrong side of the 4-0 blowout.
Ancelotti will know better than anyone that playing with quick transitions essentially requires a midfield that holds together when attacking and then moves at pace.
Today, it is a Madrid team with a very strong structure and everyone knows what the other’s role is. They have had it for a long time and it is second nature to them.
Barcelona, on the other hand, is doing it because it is what they have been told to do.
Who will take the blame at Barca?
For Barcelona, Sunday’s Clasico could be the next learning curve as they struggle to find their identity. It can be a bumpy ride.
If things go pear-shaped in the not-too-distant future, the players will be the first to criticize, especially skilled veterans such as Pique and Sergio Busquets who are not at their best. A lot of people are starting to say that they can’t play at this level anymore.
Then, depending on what happens on Sunday, next will be the coach who will be blamed for not getting the best out of a team that improved with the help of around 145 million euros in the summer.
And finally, if we continue down this path, the president Joan Laporta will be questioned by many for having sold parts of the club to try to finance this new look Barcelona.
Laporta has opted to spend most of the money available now building a strong team, hoping success on the field will bring money and partners, help pay future wages and transfer fees, bring success, bring in top players, etc.
But the results that will give the reputation needed to continue bringing in the money to pay off the debts of around 1,000 million euros, and maybe without even getting the titles, the heat will only grow on Laporta.
These are delicate times at the Nou Camp.