Monday, January 9, 2012

Barca Draws Espanyol 1-1

From SB Nation:

"Three wins, four draws and one loss. Just 12 goals for and nine goals against in eight games. This sounds like it could be the road record of a Europa League contender, but it is instead the road record of mighty Barcelona. The reigning La Liga and UEFA Champions League title holders have taken just 13 out of a possible 24 points on the road through 17 rounds of play in La Liga.

Compare that to title contenders Real Madrid.  Los Merengues have a record of 7-1-1 on the road, with 27 goals for and just five goals against. Four of those five goals were conceded in matches away to Valencia and Sevilla. They shut out Malaga on the road. They also recorded a 4-0 victory away to Espanyol, Barcelona's Catalonia rivals.

Los Cules dropped another two road points on Sunday in a 1-1 draw against Espanyol, and it can hardly be called a lucky point for the hosts. Not only did they play very good football that was deserving of a draw, but it was a repeat of what the viewing public has seen from Barcelona throughout the season. Away from the Camp Nou, a draw is the most likely result for Barcelona, a characteristic that isn't exactly befitting of the best team in the world.

What's gone wrong for Barcelona on the road? Obviously, it's impossible to pick out any one thing. A team of Barcelona's talent doesn't simply stop playing great football and stop scoring goals because of one singular factor, though there is one giant elephant in the room regarding Lionel Messi and his teammates' inability to step up when he isn't at his best.

It's important to separate out what went wrong in the Espanyol game and what has gone wrong in previous poor road performances. First of all, there was an inherent formation issue for Barcelona on Sunday. Not to harp on formations too much, because they are not the be-all, end-all of football and they had less to do with the outcome of the game than individual performances, but it's worth mentioning.

However, the blame for this draw will not fall on Carles Puyol or Pep Guardiola. Instead, the man who is likely to catch the majority of the criticism in the papers is Lionel Messi. Depending on how one looks at it, this could be abysmal or absolutely perfect timing. Messi is all but set to capture the Ballon d'Or on Monday as the best player in the world during the calendar year 2011. A number of Messi detractors say that he has better teammates around him than Cristiano Ronaldo or any other major star outside of Spain's big two, and that his goal and assist tallies are inflated as a result.

When someone reaches the heights that Messi has reached, both in his personal statistical tallies and in his success with his team, there must be a brigade of people who find every reason to detract from their accomplishments. After what happened on Sunday and what's happened over the first half of the La Liga season, it's astonishing that these people have any ammunition.

Messi was not at his best on Sunday. He was by no means poor, but he was certainly average. When Lionel Messi is average, Barcelona are usually average. Sometimes, they need him to be truly spectacular to squeak out the minimum acceptable result. As good as his co-Ballon d'Or finalist Xavi is and as good as the rest of their teammates are, Barcelona depends as much on Messi as any team depends on one player.

As long as Lionel Messi is simply very good and not playing like the best player in the world, Barcelona will look very good, but nothing like the best team in the world. Regardless of the result of the first edition of El Clasico, that's a title currently reserved for Los Merengues, who look like they can lose the second Clasico outright and still win the league.

Barcelona return home to face Real Betis next week, a match which they will probably win with relative ease. Their following two matches are away to Malaga and Villareal. They are tough tests, but also games that Barcelona need to win if they want to say they are currently as good as their title rivals. If Barcelona finish with anything but nine points out of their next three matches, the title could belong to Madrid in January."