Liga Lost? 10 Questions Fans Need to Ask About Barcelona the Rest of the Season
La Liga is looking very bleak for FC Barcelona. With a tie at Villarreal last week, Barça fell seven points back of leaders Real Madrid. Pep Guardiola has had his worst season as manager, and the team is still looking to find its rhythm.
Although there is plenty of Liga left, the way Real Madrid have been playing along the way Barcelona have been playing inconsistent football, it looks like a fourth straight Liga title is not in the cards this year for the blaugrana.
Seven points may be too much.
For Culés, the focus of winning titles shifts to the Copa Del Rey and the UEFA Champions League. La Copa essentially has two games left: the second leg of the semifinals against Valencia and the final if Barcelona reaches it. There's plenty of Champions League left.
La Liga is still important, and the players will continue to give it all they got. However, being so far away from the leaders does change the team's mindset, how they rotate players as well as how Pep strategies.
For some players, the rest of the 2011-12 campaign will be an opportunity to prove themselves, while for some, it will be a time to grow. And for some, it's an opportunity to regain confidence.
This season has been a season of excess for FC Barcelona: too many shots missed, too many bad passes, too many injuries, too many ties, too much poor defense and too much inconsistent play.
The rest of the 2011-12 season will be interesting to watch. Either this team will get it together or continue its inconsistent ways. With that being said, here are 10 questions fans need to ask about the team the rest of the season.
Can Cristian Tello Earn a Permanent Spot with the First Team This Year?
It seems like the only positive thing that came out of Barcelona’s tie with Villarreal was the play of Cristian Tello. Tello came on in the 75th minute of the game and was the spark plug Barcelona needed much earlier in the game. Cristian passed by defenders with ease as he quickly became the threat of the last 15 minutes of the game.
Tello set up Cesc Fàbregas for a shot that was nearly deflected in. The biggest play he is remembered for is the clear chance he had towards the goal only to be grabbed and held by defender Gonzalo in the 84th minute.
A red card should have been shown in my opinion.
Tello did more in 15 minutes than Fàbregas did in the entire game.
Followers of La Liga were very impressed with Tello’s play, and now, it becomes a question of how Pep Guardiola will use Tello for the next few months. With La Liga being far away and the regular starters needing rest for Champions League matches, Pep may be more flexible with having Tello in the starting XI for a few matches.
Tello has not earned a first-squad spot yet, but with his excellent play last week, Cristian Tello may surpass Sergi Roberto for a full-time call-up to the first squad.
With Defensive Struggles, Will Martin Montoya Have an Opportunity to Play?
This year has been a very inconsistent year of the defense in particular. Erratic defending at times as well as injuries to Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué have contributed to their issues on the back line. With La Liga looking like it could be lost, this would be a good time to develop their young defenders from Barcelona B.
The most promising youngster is right back Martin Montoya. With Andreu Fonts out, Montoya becomes the No. 1 young defender on the team. Martin joined La Masia at the age of nine and was promoted to the B squad in 2009. Montoya made his debut with the first squad last year. Martin was a part of Spain’s U-21 national team, which won last year’s U-21 European Championship.
Some fans may not be familiar with Martin. He’s a promising kid with good speed, great tackling skills and is very versatile on the pitch. Some have called him Barcelona’s next Dani Alves.
With Barcelona’s struggles defensively, perhaps the back line needs new blood. Barcelona will certainly be looking to improve the defense in the summer. But before they go out and spend millions of Euros on a transfer fee, they should give Martin Montoya a shot.
With him recently signing an extension until the summer of 2014, it looks like Pep and the club has faith in the kid. Let’s hope he is giving plenty of playing time because Martin will only improve playing with the first squad.
Will Resting Players Help or Hurt The Team?
This one is an obvious one: giving players more rest.
Barcelona is not an old team, but after playing so many games this season and throughout the Guardiola era, the older players should get as much rest as needed.
Of course, more time resting the regulars will help them be fresh for Champions League play and further Copa Del Rey action. Players like Carles Puyol and Xavi will benefit from this as well as players coming off injuries, like Alexis Sánchez and Andres Iniesta.
Resting some of the starters will help the bench players like Jonathan Dos Santos, Javier Mascherano, Thiago and the recently re-signed Isaac Cuenca by giving them more time on the pitch to keep them active and ready at all times. Resting the regulars in some Liga games will help with the growth of the young players like Sergi Roberto, Rafa Alcantara (Thiago’s brother) and Cristian Tello prove their merit for a permanent first team spot.
Then again, resting regulars could hurt the team by not establishing a consistent playing rhythm for some players.
I’m sure Pep will find a fine balance.
Isaac Cuenca: More Experience Needed?
Recently, Isaac Cuenca re-signed with FC Barcelona, keeping him with the club until 2015.
With the team more than likely focusing their priority to La Copa and Champions League, Isaac could be one of the biggest beneficiaries out of this. Cuenca proved himself so quickly that most tend to forget that he is still inexperienced in Liga games. Cuenca has only made seven league appearances and 15 total appearances with the first squad in all competitions.
I personally think he’s good enough to start anytime, and as great as he has been when he’s been in, in the end, he still needs more starts to strengthen his overall game.
He’s only 20.
Cuenca may not see starting time in upcoming Copa Del Rey or Champions League games, but Pep will definitely put him in the starting XI in upcoming Liga games, as well as be a very important substitute in those games.
I’m sure the new No. 23 will shine and get the games he needs underneath his belt to grow his game.
Can Pedro Re-establish Himself as a Goal-Scorer?
The addition of Alexis Sánchez last summer spelled bad news for Pedro Rodriguez. The Canarian was sent to the bench for many games, as Alexis became the first option at forward along with David Villa and Lionel Messi.
After Sánchez’s injury in September, Pedro came in until he got injured himself in October. Sánchez was back in November, and Villa’s injury opened up a spot for Pedro. However, Pep Guardiola used Issac Cuenca and Cesc Fàbregas as the forwards, and Pedro was out of the starting XI.
Pedro returned to regular play recently, scoring the first goal in the Copa Del Rey second leg against Real Madrid. Pedro has always been a natural goal scorer, but with injuries and being benched, Pedro Rodriguez has only scored one goal in La Liga and four in all competitions this season.
After injuring his left hamstring recently, forcing him out of the next few games, it is clear that the 2011-12 season has been nothing less than a nightmare for Pedro.
But with Barcelona seemingly too far away in points for La Liga title, a player who needs to step up his play and give Barça a fighting chance is Pedro. This squad has lacked goals on the road in many games, and Pedro can be the man that gives them to the team.
Pedro is expected back very soon, and it will be interesting to see if he is able to regain his form of old. He’s always been an aggressive player—which is one of his best features—and he’ll want to prove that he still is one of the best young players in Spain. There are many good forwards in Spain, and a good performance the rest of the 2011-12 campaign will help Pedro keep a spot on the Spanish national team as Euro 2012 approaches.
While he may not get a starting spot in a Champions League game, having a hot Pedro coming off the bench will be crucial for Barcelona as they go further towards another European crown.
Will Cesc Fàbregas Step Up?
These past few weeks have not been the best for Cesc Fàbregas. It seems like Cesc hasn’t played well since scoring the third goal against Real Madrid in December. He’s made too many bad passes and has missed open shots. His worse game might have been last weekend’s game versus Villarreal.
Cesc has been outshined by younger players like Cuenca and Tello as well.
While Cesc is not playing well, part of Cesc’s problems are not his fault. Due to the team’s vast injuries, especially after David Villa’s injury at the FIFA Club World Cup, Cesc had been asked to play LW. At first, it seemed like it would work out, but it is now apparent that having Fàbregas not play his natural position is hurting his effectiveness on the pitch.
With the focus shifting to Copa and Champions, Cesc needs to step up for the club. Of course, he’ll play in Liga games, but with La Liga seemingly out of reach for now, nothing is more important than the other two tournaments. Fàbregas doesn’t need to score goals; he needs to be the player that he was at the beginning of the season. Accurate passes, awareness of position on the pitch, as well as (honestly) better shots on goal.
One element than needs to be re-established is his on-the-pitch chemistry with Lionel Messi. The combination of those two will be very important, especially in the Champions League.
Cesc will eventually show up again, but let’s hope it’s soon rather than later.
Right now, Alexis Sánchez is looking like the better purchase than Fàbregas.
Evaluating Team for 2012-13: Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?
This is one for April and May: evaluating the team for next season.
While it is too early to look at the team for next year, April and May will be very important for both Sandro Rosell and Pep Guardiola as the team for the 2012-13 season.
Barcelona have great young talent, but there are one some many—or should I say few—spots on the first team.
If either Cristian Tello or Sergi Roberto has a phenomenal rest of the season, should he be called up full-time to the first squad? What if both play well? Remember, David Villa will come back, as well as Ibrahim Afellay. Would Barcelona sell Villa or Afellay to make room for either Tello or Roberto?
Also, what about Seydou Keita? Will he be let go after four years of service with the club? This may depend on how he plays when he comes back from the African Cup of Nations, but I believe it depends more on the play of the young Barça players. If they shine, how can Pep afford to send them back to the B squad? Adriano has played well, but he could be sold in order for Barcelona to have the money needed for a true defender.
The other place where evaluation will occur, if it hasn’t already, is the defensive side. It’s clear that age is catching up to Carles Puyol. Gerard Piqué has had some injuries as well, and Eric Abidal has been shaky at times, letting opponents get ahead of him during counterattacks. Sergio Busquets has been a fill-in defender at times, and Javier Mascherano has done very well when called upon, but neither of them are true defenders. Barcelona will have Andreu Fontàs’ services next season.
But if the club does not promote Martin Montoya or any other young defender, they need to go after a true defender to back up, if not start, games next year. Mats Hummels, Jordi Alba and Thiago Silva are all rumored to be on Barça’s radar.
For some players, April and May could be the last two months with FC Barcelona and/or with the first squad.
How Wil Pep Bounce Back?
Pep Guardiola deserves all the praise he has been given for everything he has done with FC Barcelona. In four years, he has won every trophy imaginable.
But Pep is now beginning to receive criticism.
While some may say there should be no reason to criticize Pep, I feel it is fair because of the way the team has recently played. Yes, he is not the one playing, but he is the man who is supposed to get the players focused and strategize the game plan. The players are responsible for not executing, but it’s the manager’s job to teach, change strategies and better prepare the players when they have failed at executing on the pitch.
It is clear that his players are out of sync, and his strategies have failed recently. Pep was clearly out-managed by Jose Mourinho in the second leg of the Copa Del Rey quarterfinals. Some of Pep’s opposing managers, like Villarreal manager Jose Francisco Molina and RCD Espanyol coach Mauricio Ponchettino, game-planned very well against Barcelona with no adjustments by Guardiola. Many are beginning to question if Guardiola is doing enough on the defensive side as well.
When Pep took out Gerard Piqué and Xavi in the Villarreal game, many said—knowing how important those players are and knowing how badly the three points were needed—that it seemed like a declaration of surrendering La Liga.
I thought the same thing at first, but now looking back, I feel Pep wanted to rest his players after having a tough match against Real Madrid a few days before and knowing they had a Copa game versus Valencia coming up.
So now with La Liga essentially in a “we’ll see what happens” mode, it will be very interesting how Pep Guardiola will rotate players for certain games. Players like Messi, Busquets and Piqué will consistently play, but what will Pep do in Liga games? Will he play Xavi and Puyol as much or will he rest them for Champions League? The big question becomes what does he do with the young players? Will Pep give Tello and Sergi more time in Liga games?
But the big question will be how Pep Guardiola will respond to his team not playing well for a significant amount of time for the first time since he became manager? Will he change his strategies, or will he continue to use the same tactics that have worked in the past?
Regardless of what happens, Pep is still the best manager in world football, and all Culés should believe he will ride the ship. If you are not sure, consider looking at Pep’s managerial credentials.
Will The Midfield and Forwards Get In Sync?
Just as much as I mentioned how it will be interesting to see how Pep Guardiola deals with a potentially lost Liga, it will be even more interesting to see how the Barcelona players respond.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting the players to throw their hands up and quit on La Liga, but what I am interested in is seeing how the players step their game up.
Will this team play with a chip on their shoulder? Personally, I hope so. This team lacks focus, and they need to become the world-beaters that they have been before.
The most crucial element is the midfield. Xavi has had bad games, especially on the road. Andres Iniesta has been plagued with injuries, and Thiago has struggled when brought in. Sergio Busquets has had a good season, and Cesc Fàbregas hasn’t had a consistent opportunity to play mid, as he has played LW in place of the injured David Villa.
In order for this team to turn things around in La Liga and to go deep in the Champions, the midfielders need to step it up.
With Andres out, Pep should consider playing Cesc consistently as a mid and leave LW to Cuenca, Roberto or Tello. Pedro will re-establish himself soon enough. But it all starts and ends with Xavi (with all due respect to Messi). If Xavi plays well, we’ll see this team finally get back to playing consistently good football.
If Barcelona wants to fight off teams like Bayern Munich and AC Milan in the Champions League knockout stage, the midfield needs to win every game. Lionel Messi, Alexis Sánchez and a healthy Pedro will be waiting for their passes.
But don’t be mistaken, the forwards need to score goals as well, something they have not done, especially on the road. Messi has missed too many shots, including a one-on-one versus Diego Lopez in the Villarreal game and a penalty in the Copa Del Rey semifinal against Valencia. Alexis has taken some very bad shots, like yesterday’s near penalty-kick marker shot against Valencia.
The midfield is the foundation of Guardiola’s team, and consistent play will be the key to a resurgent second half of La Liga season and a Champions League title run. I’m confident once the mid is running well, the forwards will see the back of the net.
How Will the Team Play with the Focus Now on Champions and Copa; Not Liga?
Finally, one question that many fans are wondering is how, if at all, will Barcelona play differently now that the focus is seemingly on La Copa and the Champions? Will it change at all?
I expect the team to play relatively the same in the Copa Del Rey. The advantage of the La Copa is that you always face teams you are familiar with. With Real Madrid out, the road to the title is a bit easier; plus, Barça only have at most two games left in the competition.
In my opinion, the biggest change will be when Barcelona plays in the UEFA Champions League knockout stage. I expect a more aggressive team on the pitch because they have more to play for compared to La Liga. Also, many of the teams left in the Champions have the players and playing style that can give Barça a tough time, like Bayern Munich, AC Milan, and of course Real Madrid.
Unlike La Copa, Barcelona obviously are not as familiar and comfortable playing with these teams (minus Madrid) and will be looking to attack as much as possible, especially when playing on the road for those crucial away goals.
The key will be the defense. If their aggressiveness fails, counterattacks, along with unawareness of where the opponent is on the pitch (looking in your direction Abidal and Puyol), and confusion will end Barcelona’s Champions chase.
It's going to be interesting to watch.
While there are many questions to be answered, one thing is certain: No Barcelona fans should lose faith in Pep Guardiola or this team. Although it seems like I am conceding La Liga, I am not. Joc soc Culé, but I’m also realistic, and I realize that winning La Liga will take too many things to happen to win it. If Barça goes down in La Liga, I’m going down with them as well.
I didn't praise Real Madrid in this article because this article is NOT about them. I didn't diss them either, so I hope no one thinks I am implying that Madrid are not good or are not a reason why Barcelona are behind. Absolutely Real's winning way is a reason, but this article's focus is on Barcelona's struggles as a team, thus contributing to them losing La Liga along with Madrid success.
It is a combination of both tremendous Madrid play along with bad Barça play that have the blaugrana in their current situation.
Barcelona cannot control its own destiny in La Liga. They need a lot of help from other teams including Real Madrid, who need to lose.
I’m hopeful Barcelona can come back in La Liga, but for now, I’m taking a “we’ll see what happens” stance. Hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
For now, winning La Copa and the Champions is what I, as a fan, am focused on. Why? Because they control their own destiny in those competitions.
One thing I will say is this: Barcelona will not be shut out of winning a title. They will win either La Copa or the Champions, if not both.
Visca el Barça!
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