The Spanish giants are one of only three teams to have remained unbeaten in Europe this term. Alex Mott looks at why that won't last much longer.
Only three teams in Europe’s top five major leagues have remained unbeaten going into November.
Roma, under new boss Rudi Garcia, have made a record-breaking start to the Italian Serie A, becoming the first side ever to win their opening 10 matches of the campaign – with only a 1-1 draw at Torino stopping their march to a continent-equalling 11 on the bounce. They are, statistically, the best defensive side on the continent, and with a rejuvenated Francesco Totti and Gervinho scoring for fun, the capital club look like they could go all the way in their search for the Scudetto.
In Ligue 1 meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain have recovered from losing Carlo Ancelotti in the summer, and are kicking on under new coach Laurent Blanc. The signing of Edinson Cavani during pre-season has added a new focal point to their attack, alongside, arguably, the in-form player in the world at the moment – Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Having won eight and drawn four of their opening 12 games, with the squad that has assembled at Parc des Princes, it’s conceivable that they could go the entire 2013/14 season without losing a single game.
A side that won’t however, currently sit atop the Liga in Spain. They may be stoically holding their position above all others in Primera Division, but after 12 games, including 11 wins and one draw – Barcelona are still proving to be a shadow of their former selves.
As Dani Alves admitted to reporters on Tuesday: 'Criticism is part and parcel of football. In terms of our statistics we’re doing exceptionally well - in terms of our play, we’re not playing our best football when compared with other seasons.' Sergio Busquets meanwhile, conceded that the Catlan club have 'lacked sparkle sometimes' this season.
The Blaugrana may have only dropped two points this season, but obviously frailties have already started to appear. Firstly, the lack of depth at the back, which looks like it will undoubtedly catch up with Tata Martino’s men soon. Carles Puyol’s persistent injuries have seen him come in and out of the team for the last year or so, and whilst Javier Mascherano is a noble replacement, he just isn’t a centre-back. That then has a knock-on effect for Gerard Pique, who looks a shadow of the player he was under Pep Guardiola, suffering when the inspirational captain isn’t beside him.
Adrian and Jordi Alba have both picked up knocks in recent weeks, which has meant Martin Montyoa being drafted in for the game against Osasuna a few weeks ago – which was, incidentally, their only draw of the campaign.
On the face of it, the midfield looks perfectly set to dominate European football. Sergio Busquets is arguably the best in his position in Europe, whilst Andres Iniesta will clearly go down as one of the greatest to ever kick a football. Their lynchpin though, Xavi Hernandez, is looking and feeling all of his 33 years. The legendary pass machine can no longer play match after match after match in the blue and red stripes, and the team suffer when he’s not in the XI.
Cesc Fabregas has proved a willing replacement for the Grand Old Man of Catalan football, but Martino seems eager to play the former Arsenal man in a more advanced position, due to his ill-discipline when asked to operate that ‘Xavi role’.
After those four however, things start to look a little desperate for the Camp Nou outfit. When Alex Song is your only real alternative in the middle of the park, it’s clear that something is not right. Jonathan Dos Santos doesn’t seem to have cut the grade – and is out for six month anyway with a knee injury. And the same can be said for Sergi Roberto, who is being tracked by Tottenham, Liverpool and AC Milan, if reports in Mundo Deportivo are to be believed.
That lack of option can’t be angled at the forward department though. Lionel Messi, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, Pedro, Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca are all fighting for three places in the forward line – but it’s the South American trio who are being preferred at the moment.
With Messi unfit however, and not producing his best, it has been down to Neymar and Alexis to carry the attacking can in recent weeks. The Brazilian has adapted admirably to European football following his move from Santos in the summer, and has essentially become Barca’s stand-out performer in the first few weeks. As the most fouled player in Spain though, how long will it be before the youngster has to sit out thanks to a long-term injury? The Chile international meanwhile, looks to have been rejuvenated under the Argentine tactician, but as easy as form and confidence come, it can go just as quickly. The former Udinese man has blown hot and cold since arriving from Italy, so can’t be expected to keep up this type of goalscoring momentum.
On the surface, Barcelona have made an incredible start to the 2013/14 season, but dig a little deeper, and it doesn’t take long to see a few cracks appearing. Don’t expect them then, to emulate the Arsenal or Juventus Invincibles of the last decade.
image: © jeroen_bennink