If you happen to conduct a review of the Spanish media a few weeks ago, you might be forgiven for thinking that football giants Barcelona were in a funk unlike any other this calendar year – that Camp Nou was a sea of chewed nails and Catalans around the world were praying en masse for Barcelona to break out of their rut.
Although that crisis mentality is one that both Barcelona and Madrid tabloids are quick to jump onto, the hysteria this time around was, at least to an extent, justified. FC Barcelona, acclaimed by one and all as the best club in the world last season, the first ever Spanish team to claim the coveted treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League in a single season, were at a turning point in their attempts to replicate their own feats. In Europe, a mouthwatering clash with Italian champions Inter Milan awaited; and in the Primera Liga, one of the greatest games of the year was coming up: El Gran Clasico, the biannual fixture against perennial rivals Real Madrid. It was a week that would potentially define the rest of the year for Barcelona, and they passed their double test with flying colors.
First off, Jose Mourinho’s return to Camp Nou was less than he might have hoped for – his Scudetto winners being simply blown away by a Catalan football display of the highest quality – and that too without the services of either Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. ‘Xaviesta’ again came to the fore, taking control of the midfield, and reproducing the magic of last year’s all-conquering side. In the first half, an early Gerard Pique volley was followed by another through the latest cantera product to emerge into the Barcelona starting lineup, 22 year old Pedro, to settle the fixture.
Only five days later, Camp Nou again played host to a marquee team – this time it was Real Madrid, featuring the likes of previous Ballon D’Or holders Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, Liverpool import Xabi Alonso, and the hottest French forward since Thierry Henry, Karim Benzema. The game itself was billed as the greatest collection of football talent on a single pitch – Barcelona, of course, with current Ballon D’Or holder Messi, Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, Euro 2008 MVP Xavi, Iniesta, and others. It was even broadcast live on cinemas, raising its already-atmospheric stature to even higher levels. Fittingly, the match was a high-strung affair with tensions on a knife edge, Barcelona finally taking the lead through Swedish giant Ibrahimovic (five minutes after he subbed in, benched through injury) and then going a man down almost immediately as Sergio Busquets, in a moment of madness, handled the ball and was handed a second yellow card. Los Blancos were unable to capitalize on advantage and the game ended 1-0 in the hosts’ favor, who also jumped five points clear of the visitors from Madrid (the second-ranked team in the league).
The triumphant week for the Catalans seemingly confirmed their status as worthy champions, but manager Joseph ‘Pep’ Guardiola had other ideas – typically cautious and focused, he declared that the next group of fixtures would be even more critical – league games with minnows Xerex, ‘SuperDepor’ Deportivo La Coruna interspersed with the final and decisive UCL match against Dynamo Kiev.
Lo and behold, the title-holders have been busy tightening their grips on their trophies with three more wins in a row, the victories further embellished by the fact that each team fought hard and did not collapse to losses, forcing the Blaugrana to beat them. Dynamo Kiev, for instance, took a lead at home in Russia within two minutes through an Artem Milevskiy header, but Xavi slid in for an equalizer ten minutes before halftime and Messi swerved in a beautiful free kick so that Barcelona topped Group F. Uniquely, all four clubs in the group were the current domestic champions and had a chance of making it to the knockout round on the last day.
El Derbi Barceloni was the last game Barcelona would play on Spanish soil in 2009, and it was, fittingly, a deserved triumph against city rivals Espanyol that featured a first half of comprehensive Blaugrana domination and mixed second half – much like the year has been. Los Periquitos (The Parakeets) were one of the few teams to win at Camp Nou last season, where a Victor Valdes blunder allowed former Barcelona player Ivan De le Pena to score a winner, but this time around a single Ibrahimovic thunderbolt from the penalty spot, after Xavi was controversially deemed to be fouled, was enough.
Next on the relentless schedule for ‘the Harlem Globetrotters of world football’ is a trip to Abu Dhabi, where the Catalans will compete for the Club World Cup, the only trophy they have never won. Stay tuned; next week’s article will provide updates as well as discuss reasons to be optimistic about FC Barcelona’s prospects this season.