FC Barcelona return to life in La Liga after the international break for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. Barcelona have been in scintillating domestic form so far this season but what awaits further for the Catalan giants is a tough stretch of fixtures which will prove decisive in the title race going into the winter break. FC Barcelona: A Road through Fire focusses on the events leading to La Liga campaign so far and their strenuous road ahead.
Catalan Referendum & World Cup Qualifiers
FC Barcelona players went into the international break on the back of a disturbing domestic situation in Spain. The people of Catalonia held a referendum vote in wake of autonomy from Spain, protests were held and Spanish police had to step in. It had everything from violence, players like Gerard Pique voicing their opinions and a possible eviction of FC Barcelona from La Liga. The vote was held amid all of this chaos and the Catalan crowd emerged with an aggregate 91% vote in favour of the separation. On the same day, Barcelona were to face Las Palmas at Camp Nou under a cloud of doubts whether this game will actually take place. Abandoning the game meant a six point sanction in Premiera Division and a possible judicial sanction. Barcelona decided to proceed with the game behind closed doors with zero crowd, an unprecedented situation in the history of the club.
The International Break was a roller-coaster of emotions for the FC Barcelona players. Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano were on the verge of getting ousted from the World Cup in Russia next summer while Busquets was set to cap his glorious national team career with his 100th appearance. Gerard Pique was constantly heckled by the press with question on independence despite him remaining firm on his commitment to the national team. Lionel Messi salvaged the World Cup qualification for Argentina, single-handedly dragging them into the third spot netting a sublime hat-trick against Ecuador. With this huge burden off his back, a relieved Messi is going to be a pleasant sign for Barcelona fans. Expect him to extend his career best start of La Liga a season further. Luis Suarez and Paulinho chipped in with goals for their respective national teams, however, the former’s goal scoring form and involvement has been a worry for Barcelona lately. Iniesta signing a contract for life is an additional boost for the club.
Road through Fire
FC Barcelona currently sit at the top of the La Liga table with a comfortable lead of 5 points over 2nd placed Sevilla and haven’t lost any of their 7 fixtures this season, maintaining a perfect start to their campaign. But this is not the time to be complacent for the Spanish leaders. In their next 10 fixtures, they have a mammoth task of facing 6 teams who are currently ranked in top 10 of the standings. Out of these 6 teams, 4 feature in the top 5: Sevilla, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid in the decreasing order.
After Departure of their Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli, many predicted Sevilla to slow down this season. Eduardo Briezzo who previously managed Celta Vigo for 3 seasons was appointed as Sampaoli’s successor and Sevilla have begun their campaign in a tremendous fashion, losing only once to Atletico and drawing once. Return of Jesus Navas and Nolito from Manchester City have boosted the squad. Steven Nzonzi and Banega are more than capable of breaking down any top team with their creativity. Ben Yedder and Muriel offer electric pace going forward raking to score 33% of the team’s goals this season.
Valencia have been lethal with the addition of Kondogbia from Inter Milan and Zaza on loan from Juventus. They have scored the most goals in the league after Barcelona with Zaza topping the charts behind Messi with 6 goals. Soler, Guedes & Rodrigo provide lightening pace going forward and showing a display of versatile attacking football. Valencia have already managed to snatch points from two of the league’s biggest title contender teams: Real Madrid and Atletico, drawing with both of them.
After their transfer ban, Altetico have begun a new life at Wanda Metropolitano. Simeone has put faith in his squad and youngsters like Angel Correa, Vietto have stepped onto the scene. Since their move to new stadium Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid haven’t lost a single game at home. They are on an unbeaten run of 11 games in the league. Atletico Madrid will face Barcelona in front of home crowd with no away fans. With the recent referendum debacle Atletico refused to give any tickets stating logistical reasons. This will add to the hostile atmosphere Barcelona will be facing whenever they travel to any side outside Catalonia. Six out of Barcelona’s next 10 fixtures are away games outside of Catalonia and the situation is expected to escalate in coming days.
Real Madrid began their season in emphatic fashion, rolling over Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in Spanish Super Cup. From that point on their form has wobbled, failing to win first 3 of their La Liga game at home since 1995-96. Absence of Cristiano Ronaldo due to suspension for 4 games when he received a red card in Spanish Super Cup only made the matters worse. From then, Real have regrouped well but their early games cost them a 7 point lead over league leaders Barcelona. With the season’s first Clasico coming up in December, Real will be keen to reduce the deficit and not incur any setbacks till then. An in-form midfield diamond of Kroos-Modric-Casemiro-Isco is their strength this season.
Leganes have the 2nd best defensive record in the league after Barcelona. At home they have been unbreakable and managed to frustrate big names like Atletico Madrid. They will put up a stellar fight when Messi and Co. visit Estadio Municipal de Butarque.
First Battle: Atletico Madrid vs FC Barcelona, Wanda Metropolitano
FC Barcelona will travel to Wanda Metropolitano for the first time since the stadium was unveiled. This will be their first test in what will be a series of gruelling fixtures. Coaches of both sides have been cautious and played down chances of winning. Simeone who has never won against Barcelona in La Liga since he overtook the coaching job at Atletico said that Barcelona are still one of the best teams in the world but believes Real Madrid to be a better team this season. He is well aware that Lionel Messi has been in scintillating form and has made everyone forget the departure of Neymar. Simeone said, “Barcelona doesn’t want to stop winning. They don’t get tired, they have a winning mentality in their genes”.
While Simeone has never won against Barcelona, Valverde as a coach has never beaten Simeone in his career. When asked about the magnitude of this game Valverde said, “First big match? When you win it seems that the challenge comes later and the previous ones don’t count, but it is not so.” Valverde was also quick to play down the talks of best start in the league,he said, “We have a good streak of games, with victories. We will analyze statistics afterwards. Points distance? I would be happy to have seven points and two games left.”
If Barcelona win on Saturday night, they will equal their best start of 8 wins in a row achieved under Tata Martino in 2013 when they lost the La Liga title to Atletico Madrid on the final match-day of the season. Irrespective of the coaches, keeping their hopes limited in this game will be one of the key battles to decide title this season.