Barcelona: Why They Can Return to the Top This Season
For a club which has made a habit of winning La Liga and the Champions League over the past few years, to end the 2011-12 campaign with just a triumph in the Copa del Rey to show for it was a major disappointment.
To make matters worse, they had to sit back and watch as bitter historic rivals Real Madrid claimed the Spanish league title with 100 points and 121 goals scored, both record-breaking totals. They then suffered another blow at the start of this season by losing to Real in the Spanish Super Cup despite taking a 3-2 aggregate lead to Madrid following the first leg.
But there are several reasons to believe that this season could see them return to the very top of the tree and perhaps even match their treble-winning exploits of the 2008-09 campaign. Here are those reasons:
Barcelona Has Started Out Well
For one thing, Real have given them something of a head start. Just as Barca's sluggish opening to the campaign last term meant they were always playing catch up, this season Real's haul of four points from three games has given the Catalan club a five-point advantage after winning all three of their league games thus far.
No doubt there will be some unexpected results between now and June, but in a league with such a gap between the top two and the rest, such an early advantage has to be seen as significant.
They Have Lionel Messi
Meanwhile, star man Lionel Messi just continues to improve. Last season he scored an outrageous 50 goals in La Liga and a record 14 in the Champions League en route to what has been described as a world-record haul of 82 goals for club and country last season.
Counting back through the years, his previous hauls have been 51, 49, 42, 20 and seven, while his rate of assists has followed a similarly exponential rise. With six goals in five games already this season, the mind boggles at what figures the 25-year-old is capable of this season. Not only do they have Messi, but he has a solid supporting cast
Messi Has Help
It could be argued that Messi is not even the best player at the club right now, as Andres Iniesta appears to have entered his peak years following some of the most consistently wondrous form of his career. The midfielder was named the best player at Euro 2012 and won UEFA's own Player of the Year award last week.
Perhaps a partial explanation for Messi's obscene amount of goals scored last term can be found in the fact that he had to shoulder so much more of the burden. David Villa missed the entire second half of the season with a broken leg, while Alexis Sanchez endured a debut campaign in Spain curtailed by injury.
Now, with both the Spanish national team's all-time leading scorer and the Chilean who managed 12 goals in 25 league appearances last term looking forward to a full season, opposition defences will have a lot more than just Messi to worry about.
While the return of Villa might feel like a new signing, the genuine fresh arrivals of Spain left-back Jordi Alba from Valencia and central midfielder Alex Song from Arsenal have added extra quality and strength to their respective positions within the Barca squad.
Last summer's other major addition, Cesc Fabregas, now has a full season upon his return to the club under his belt, and like the rest of the squad, has had his first preseason under the leadership of head coach Tito Vilanova.
Vilanova Knows the System
Many have predicted Barca's slide following Pep Guardiola's resignation from the post of head coach at the end of last season, but Vilanova's part in the previous regime must not be overlooked. While it is true that many assistants struggle when they inherit the top job, the continuity and familiarity offered by Vilanova could prove invaluable to reviving Barca's fortunes.
Vilanova's appointment does add a degree of uncertainty, however, and it is far from the only one at Camp Nou at the moment.
Barcelona Can Overcome Their Weaknesses
While Barca brought in a world-class left-back and a top defensive midfielder, they still have not added to the two recognised centre-backs in their squad. Song may join Javier Mascherano in taking stints filling in at the back, but they will need to address the shortage there before too long.
Further back, Victor Valdes may be Spain's No. 2 goalkeeper and won the Zamora award for each of the past four seasons, but his propensity for making costly errors all too often is another nagging concern. His most recent aberration ultimate cost Barcelona the Super Cup, and there is always the chance his next could be even more significant.
However, these are issues which have hung over Barcelona in each of the past few seasons, and yet those same years have seen them dominate an era which history will define as one which unquestionably belongs to them.
There is more than enough quality, class and winning mentality running right through the Barcelona squad to make them extending that glorious era even further this season.
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