Seven months into the new season, and it’d be inappropriate to say that Cules around the globe aren’t happy. Of course they are – and that’s exactly what a nine-point lead does to you. Atlético Madrid, Barcelona’s nearest title contenders are having an incredible season so far and are quite justifiably contenders for the Spanish League title, along with the Catalan giants.
Tito Vilanova’s ill health might just have been a dampener, but good news has emerged and the Catalan camp can get back their manager earlier than expected.
Fans would have yet another reason to be ecstatic – Andres Iniesta, perhaps the most gifted player at present (yes, keeping in mind Lionel Messi), finally got the recognition he deserved. UEFA Best Player in Europe Award 2011/12 title does justice to the talent of the incredible man from a village called Fuentealbilla. Iniesta secured nineteen votes – two more than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom ended on seventeen.
“I’m very happy to receive such recognition. As I always say, such awards for one individual can’t be achieved without the whole team. So it’s a sensation that I want to share with my teammates at the club, and in the national team.”
– Andres Iniesta
Back to the season 2012-13, Barcelona have stayed loyal to their pass-and-move philosophy, but they have added some extra sheen to it. More importantly, Vilanova has found a way to accommodate Cesc Fabregas, who, to put it figuratively, might just have returned home after a hiatus and after honing his skills under one of the finest managers around, Arsene Wenger. With 6 goals and 9 assists in 18 appearances for Barcelona, Fabregas has made yet another good start to the season.
This team now plays a much more vertical game than they previously did. Lionel Messi has returned to the centre and Vilanova has used players with pace on the flanks, including the fullbacks to stretch the defense and lose shape for Leo to take charge at the centre – and the difference in noticeable. Right when Leo is about to reach the peak of his abilities, he’s played in a position where he receives the most freedom and 36 goals and 7 assists speak for themselves.
Emergence of Gerard Pique has been yet another telling factor this season. After going through a bad-patch and rumoured bad-blood with the manager, Pique has now gotten back to his old self, which made him one of the best defensive prospects in years to come and has reached the milestone of 200 official matches for the club. Yes, he has had his embarrassing moments, particularly when Cristiano did something really bizarre in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. But Cristiano is one of the top players on this planet and such infrequent errors from the usually reliable centreback can be overlooked.
Jordi Alba has been one of the finest acquisitions this season, not only for Barcelona but also in general. The former academy player who started off as a winger has retained the pace required to be an effective one. And the credit certainly goes to Unai Emery. His transition has been smooth and when Barcelona have an Eric Abidal in the twilight of his career, an Alba will certainly guard the left side with aplomb for years to come. Despite not having the physically imposing presence, the diminutive fullback has the skill, speed and intelligence to link up with Andres Iniesta and others playing on the left side – 3 goals and 4 assists, midway into the season is testimony enough for the young defender’s potential and his importance in the side. Fans can however, expect Alba to be rested in favour of Adriano later into the season, when fatigue starts to catch-up with the squad.
Dani Alves has been one of the players who hasn’t been upto his usually high standards. Perhaps lack of motivation coupled with a few injuries and the emergence of Martin Montoya and the brilliance of Adriano, have unsettled the Brazilian, who otherwise had an imperious partnership with Lionel Messi under Pep Guardiola.
In the past, when Manchester City came out with their deep pockets and Alves was on the verge of a contract expiry, the Brazilian showed his commitment to the club and signed an extension. Even last summer Manchester City reportedly offered €15m and Aleksandar Kolarov to secure the signature of Alves. But Barcelona and Alves stayed put. However, times have changed and under Vilanova, Montoya has blossomed well and Adriano has been nothing short of a revelation despite a bad start to the season.
Brazil has had great players in that position and the fact that Alves is right up there with the best, testifies his ability and it’d be an understatement to say that he has been an important member of the Barcelona team that rewrote history. However, it’s been some time that we have not seen the Alves who owned the right flank with Lionel Messi. Fans will be less worried about his age and injuries and more about his attitude. The hunger to win and win in style seems to be missing and in Martin Montoya, Barcelona perhaps have a good replacement. And with nouveau riche clubs like PSG and Zenit hot on heels, a move to France or Russia isn’t unlikely. And in all fairness, the 30 million defender, once tagged as over-priced, has repaid every penny with his performance over the years and fans have no reason to be aggrieved if he seeks an opportunity to move to a club which would allow him to retire with a bigger pay check.
Recent performances have been promising, especially the ones against Spartak Moscow and the away loss at Celtic Park. With Adriano played as the centre-back, Vilanova isn’t aversive to experiments and Alves’ return to form might just make his stay at Camp Nou longer than expected. The advantage of having Dani in midfield also counts and as Guardiola had once successfully done to stunt movement of swift players like Ronaldo, Alves may just find a new lease of life in the Barcelona starting line-up.
Adriano has been a surprise package this season. Vilanova’s team isn’t as averse to shoot from distance as Guardiola’s team was. They may not have the finesse of the last 3-4 seasons, but they certainly are a stronger lot, with the ability to grind out results in a 38-match long league. Adriano is an epitome of versatility. Guardiola and Vilanova have employed him in as many position as possible and Adriano did not disappoint in any. This season, after a bad start to his campaign, the Brazilian has raised his game to a level that could just get him the tag of the most improved player of the season so far. Apparently Adriano has undergone a specific training during off-season and is leaner than he was last season. This has helped his movements and he now takes up positions which he previously failed to.
Adriano has scored goals too and quite a few important ones at that. The one against Valencia is perhaps one of the best goals of the season and as far as importance goes, is right up there with any other goal – it secured all three points in a vital match against a tough opposition. His tally in La Liga is more than that of Karim Benzema which speaks volumes about his effectiveness and importance in Vilanova’s Barcelona.
David Villa has been an enigma ever since his return to football. Despite having a few impactful cameos, the manager doesn’t deem him fit enough to start consistently. However, rumours have it that the former Valencia striker is frustrated and quite a few English teams are lining up to sign the striker. Despite his limited chances, Villa is the joint second highest scorer for Barcelona in the league along with Adriano and his first goal came in the return match against Sociedad. “Impossible sin Vosotros” – the message from a teary-eyed Villa is still fresh in the minds of fans and ever since, Villa has only gotten better in the limited chances that he has got.
Although Zubizarreta has made it clear that Villa isn’t for sale, recent reports have emerged that the Catalan club will be willing to accept a bid in the region of £16 million. Villa’s future is still unclear but a player of his calibre will always have a place in the Camp Nou, especially when youngsters like Alexis Sanchez fail to live upto the expectation.
Alexis has hardly been the player he was expected to be. Following a spectacular move from Udinese to Barcelona, Sanchez has been disappointing to say the least. After a lengthy injury lay-off, he has found it increasingly difficult to get into the groove. Despite the stamina and desire to work hard, he has failed in one aspect which should have been his strength – score goals. With just 1 goal this season, Alexis is gradually paving his way out of the club albeit, he might get one more season to prove his mettle, before the club decides that enough is enough.
There’s not much you can say or analyse about the likes of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Puyol. They form the core of the Barca line-up along with Valdes. And this season the core has been immaculate, save Valdes. Victor Valdes, despite all his heroics, ends up with a few embarrassing situations which usually denies him the credit he would otherwise have deserved. And the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup is one such example.
Andres Iniesta did enough to feed the ball to Lionel Messi, who had Iker Casillas to beat. Surprisingly, Leo failed and a Real Madrid counter-attack began. An ordinary pass from Ozil was intercepted by Adriano, who then passed it back to Valdes. Quite an easy drill, given the amount of times they do it in practise and also in real-time scenarios. However, Valdes, tried to do a Gigi Buffon, but sadly, he wasn’t even close to a Julio Cesar.
In an awkward yet audacious attempt Victor lost the ball and Di Maria eventually got that priceless away-goal which eventually got Real Madrid the Super Cup. The memory of this terrible gaffe is so burdensome that his immense double saves against Levante are no longer remembered.
The young brigade of Tello, Montoya, Bartra, Alcantara have had their limited chances and they did not disappoint. Not many youngsters get to sign the contract extension with the senior team of FC Barcelona. And when they do, there must be something special about the kid. Cristian Tello, who signed a contract extension which will see him at the Camp Nou till 2016, is one such player. Known for his pace and goal-scoring ability, Tello has eventually eclipsed yet another La Masia star – Isaac Cuenca, albeit it can be attributed to a serious injury which stunted the latter’s growth.
Undoubtedly Tello is one of the fastest players in the Barca squad, and beating a defender merely on the basis of pace is perhaps as easy as it gets for him. But, there is ample scope for improvement and better ball control will only see him establishing himself as a regular future sometime in the future. His ability to stretch the defense and enable Lionel and Co to operate from the centre has been vital this season and one can only expect the youngster to get better as the season progresses.
Alex Song has had his chances playing out of position and without surprise, he disappointed. However, his desire to adapt to the system at Barcelona is visible and although as of now he is not even a fraction of what Keita was, but with time and age on his side, Song has the all the possibility to be an asset to this side.
With Vilanova scheduled to return soon, the squad is expected to converge and aim at a common target. Fans around the globe would however love to have a repeat of the treble they achieved as the first ever Spanish team. If Guardiola could do it, why not Vilanova?