Barcelona fans would have been forgiven for fearing the worst when Leo Messi went down in obvious pain clutching his arm in the First Half of their league game with Sevilla in October. Barca were already 2-0 up, predominantly thanks to the magic of Messi, however with a tough schedule approaching the last thing they needed was an injury to their star player.
With few of their other regulars having failed to come back from the World Cup at anything like their top level and the new arrivals struggling to make much impact, there was genuine reason to think Barca would find life tough going against the likes of Inter Milan and Real Madrid without Messi. As it has turned out, the Catalan giants will soon be able to welcome back their skipper in a stronger position than they were when his season was abruptly interrupted. Tuesday’s draw at the San Siro secured Champions League qualification from a tricky group they will surely now top while Barca hold a 3 point advantage at the top of La Liga and significantly a 7 point lead on Real Madrid.
Perhaps more significantly they will also welcome Messi back into the fold, looking a stronger and more balanced all-round team. Barcelona’s other senior players have really relished the extra responsibility over the past couple of weeks serving a timely reminder that this is not just the ‘Messi Show’ and they are capable of winning tough games without him.
Suarez Hits Form
👀 Luis Suarez’s last five games…
Inter Milan: 🅰️
Real Madrid: ⚽️⚽️⚽️
Rayo Vallecano: ⚽️⚽️
— Matchgains (@matchgains) November 4, 2018
The man who has really stepped up in the absence of Messi is Luis Suarez. Similarly to last season, he made a slow start to this campaign but has really found his feet over the past few weeks with some all-action displays. He has frequently been dropping deeper to collect the ball and has taken on the Messi role as the figurehead of Barcelona’s attack.
His performances have proved decisive in the two league games since Messi’s injury. The Uruguayan scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid to take his clasico tally to an impressive nine goals, far more than any other player has managed since he made his debut in the fixture. Just as important was his brace last weekend in Vallecas as Suarez scored the first and last goals in a dramatic 3-2 Barca win over Rayo.
He’s likely to revert back to more of a natural, predatory number nine role when Messi comes back but his performances have certainly eased any fears that he was starting to slowly decline as a footballer heading into his 30’s. With the two South Americans and either Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele operating off the left, Barcelona still have a three-man attack that is capable of netting close to 100 goals this season in all competitions, a luxury that no other side in Europe can truly count upon right now.
Impressive Arthur adding control in Midfield
— CalcioMercato (En) (@CmdotCom_En) November 6, 2018
Ernesto Valverde has received a fair amount of criticism this season, some of it merited, some of it a touch unfair especially given Barca currently top both La Liga and their Champions League group. Most of the negativity towards Valverde comes back to his side not playing the so-called ‘Barca way’. He might argue that he is simply playing to his side’s strengths, in a similar way that Luis Enrique did by prioritising getting the ball forward quickly in the absence of players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta. However the emergence of Arthur, a young midfielder not dissimilar to Xavi, has been the biggest positive and it could ultimately lead to a shift back to the more controlling approach that many Barca fans crave.
The 22 year old joined from Gremio in July and has been by far the most impressive of the summer signings. There is a danger of over-hyping somebody who has still only made 5 starts in La Liga and even in Brazil he only really played for one full season for Gremio. However if the early signs are anything to go by, Arthur could be a fixture in this Barcelona midfield for many years to come. He has shown great composure and maturity for a player so young and inexperienced and hasn’t been remotely fazed by the challenge and pressure of slotting into a team with the expectancy levels and pressures of Barcelona.
Like all the best players, he makes everything look simple and with the Brazilian shining and Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic both coming into form, Barcelona’s midfield is currently operating as well as it has done for a long while.
Read more – The new generation of Spanish midfield talent
The right formula at last away in Europe?
Barcelona have advanced to the next stage of the Champions League after a testing 1-1 draw with Inter.
A gripping end-to-end encounter at the San Siro.
👀 No Messi
👏 Super sub
🔥 Captain fantastic
— FOX Sports Football (@FOXFOOTBALL) November 6, 2018
Despite the criticism that has come their way, largely caused by the ridiculously high bar set during the Guardiola years, Barcelona’s problems over the past few seasons can be fairly easily pinpointed. Domestically they’ve enjoyed an era of almost unprecedented domination winning the Copa del Rey in all of the last 4 seasons and 3 of the last 4 league titles. A lack of European success, compounded by Real Madrid’s hat-trick of Champions League wins though has been a major source of frustration and their premature European exits can basically be blamed on their failure to perform in tough away games on the continent.
They headed into this season having won just 1 of their last 7 away in the Champions League. That would be tolerable had they been grinding out draws or even narrow defeats such has been their ability to put teams to the sword at Camp Nou. However over the last two years they’ve conceded 3 or more goals on 4 occasions away in Europe, getting out-battled and overrun in crunch knockout ties away to the likes of PSG, Roma and Juventus, who all beat them by a margin of 3 or more goals. Finding a remedy for that problem was their number one priority heading into this season and from the outset there has been a lot of talk coming out of the Barcelona camp centring around the Champions League. Even Leo Messi, who rarely speaks to the media, made it clear the competition was the one he wanted to win and to do that clearly they needed to improve on the road.
So far they look to have done just that. An impressive 4-2 win at Tottenham emphatically ended a sequence that had seem them score just twice in their previous 7 Champions League away games. In some ways their performance at Inter in midweek was even more impressive and an ominous sign for the rest of Europe. In front of a 70,000 strong crowd at the San Siro and against a team in red hot form, they managed to exert a control and a dominance on the game that we’ve rarely seen from Barcelona on the road in Europe in recent years, certainly against strong opposition. The tactical tweaks Valverde has made, not to mention the introduction of Arthur, seems to have given them more balance and there isn’t quite the same sense of fragility that was evident throughout their Champions League campaign last term, one which came to a crushing halt in Rome.
Tougher challenges lie ahead but right now Barcelona look in pretty good shape to have a very strong season at home and abroad. While clearly they are a better team with Leo Messi, his absence has forced others to take on extra responsibility which can only benefit the side in the long run.
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