Halftime Sports

For FC Barcelona, Validation at El Clasico

November 24, 2015

FC Barcelona

It was a night for the ages for FC Barcelona, and a nightmare to forget for Real Madrid. This past Saturday evening at Real Madrid’s home ground, the Santiago Bernabeu, FC Barcelona left the soccer world in awe as they thrashed a hapless Madrid side by a score of 4-0 in the latest edition of El Clasico. Employing their signature dazzling passing moves and attacking-based brand of soccer, Barcelona looked all but unbeatable as an uninspired Real Madrid floundered throughout the battle between two of the sporting world’s biggest rivals. Led by the absurdly talented attacking duo of Neymar and Luis Suarez, the Catalans pummeled the shaky Madrid defense, creating scoring opportunities with relative ease. The statistics concur: 60% possession and over 200 more passes completed than Los Blancos make it evident that Barcelona ran circles around the opposition.

After two clinical first-half goals from Suarez and Neymar respectively, Barcelona sealed the game with a ferocious strike from Andrés Iniesta in the 55th minute of play. Suarez again chipped in for the final goal of the game in the 74th minute, after being released by a flawless passing combination from Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi (who came off the bench in the second half as he continues to return from a knee injury). Real Madrid did manage to generate a few decent chances in the later stages of the game, but Barcelona keeper Claudio Bravo reacted superbly to block close-range attempts by Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema and ultimately keep Madrid off the scoresheet.

An El Clasico characterized by such thorough superiority is rare; it holds implications for both of the Spanish giants. However, for FC Barcelona in particular, their performance in El Clasico served as an authoritative mark of validation. There’s no longer a doubt: the team has achieved the seemingly-impossible task of returning to the mythical form of the Pep Guardiola era.

The Pep years, which stretched from 2008 to 2012, saw Barcelona experience arguably the most successful period in its storied history. Instituting a lightning-quick style of passing and pressing known as “tiki taka,” Guardiola brought a staggering 14 trophies to FC Barcelona in just four seasons, including two prestigious Champions League victories and three La Liga titles. This period of prosperity included the calendar year of 2009, in which Barcelona won a mind-boggling six titles- a feat achieved by only a handful of clubs throughout the history of world soccer. With core veterans such as Xavi, Puyol, Victor Valdes, Eric Abidal, and David Villa, the Barcelona team of 2008-2012 was simply lethal, a side of pure brilliance for the record books.

However, after Guardiola left for a sabbatical after the 2012 season, Barcelona endured somewhat of an identity crisis. They have undergone drastic changes in the past few years, the result of transitioning from the wonder years under Pep Guardiola to a new age with current manager Luis Enrique at the reins. They cycled through three different managers during this time and struggled to reach the monumental heights of the previous years. The squad itself also experienced an overhaul, with key players such as Xavi, Puyol, Valdes, Keita, Abidal, and Villa either retiring or leaving the team due to age-related decline. This combination of factors left the club reeling. In the two-year period of limbo between the tenures of Guardiola and Enrique, Barcelona won just a single trophy- the 2013 La Liga title. It appeared as though the “once in a lifetime” success found under Guardiola had run its course, the level of play too impossibly high to sustain over a period managerial and roster transitions. Obviously, Barcelona would continue to be a perennial contender in world soccer, but the magic of the Guardiola era was thought to be finished.

Everything changed in the summer of 2014 with the arrival of two men. One was new manager Luis Enrique who, as a former player and youth manager for Barcelona, is an individual steeped in the club’s tradition. The other was the mercurial striker Luis Suarez from Liverpool FC, a man whose incredible abilities are often overshadowed by his penchant for attracting controversy. In his debut season as manager, Enrique gradually built the team around a different core of players both new and old, with the focus on the combined attacking prowess of Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr, and Luis Suarez. A new, potent brand of soccer emerged at Barcelona during the 2014 season, one that fused the “tiki taka” possession system of the Guardiola reign with a more direct, attacking style that took capitalized on the front three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez. The three attackers, all considered to be among the top five players on the planet, played together seamlessly. They ripped through defenses in phenomenal displays of creativity and ability, scoring a Spanish soccer record of 122 goals between them. The result was one of the most successful seasons in Barcelona’s history, as the team won the prestigious treble for the first time since the Pep era. Incredibly, after a period of two mediocre seasons, FC Barcelona had ascended all the way back to the pinnacle of their powers. Indeed, the 2014-15 squad rivaled the finest of Pep Guardiola’s teams in terms of talent and achievement in a single season. However, one season wasn’t enough to validate the return to the apex of greatness.

After achieving the treble (which consists of winning the Champions League, the La Liga title, and the Spanish cup, or the Copa del Rey) last season, the main question lingering over the Barcelona team was whether or not they could maintain their magnificent form of 2014-15. An inconsistent start to the 2015-16 season, combined with a lengthy knee injury to talisman Lionel Messi, put Barcelona’s chances of duplicating the success of the previous year in doubt. Yet, in the absence of Messi, Barcelona has, shockingly enough, returned to the level of the previous season. The other two members of the attack, Neymar and Suarez, have combined for an insane 17 goals in the six La Liga since Messi’s injury, leading Barcelona to the top of La Liga table. The fact that Barcelona were able to cope without the best player in the world speaks volumes about the talent of the squad. In fact, in the lengthy eight weeks without Messi, Barcelona only lost once.

Yet, Sunday’s El Clasico silenced all doubts about the present Barcelona side. In a match that was supposed to be close, Barcelona made Real Madrid look foolish, dismissing the world’s most expensive team with a truly flawless performance. Luis Enrique’s edition of FC Barcelona possesses a familiar lethality; like Guardiola’s teams, this squad strikes at the very heart of the opposition, unrelenting and unmerciful. Essentially, the historical 4-0 trouncing of Real Madrid is the final piece of the puzzle, vindicating that this collection of players is one of the finest assembled in recent times. Sooner than anyone could have possibly imagined, Barcelona’s current squad incredibly, yet rightfully, claims its place in club history beside the once-unmatched Guardiola teams of 2008-2012.


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