The presenter of El Punt Avui TV’s The Week in Football and Barça TV commentator, Barney Griffiths, analyses the situation at Catalonia’s leading clubs as they wind down for the World Cup break
Despite winning five of nine games in October and looking imperious against strong opposition in La Liga – witness the 3-0 and 4-0 drubbings of Villarreal and Athletic, respectively – Xavi’s side went out of the Champions League due to two poor results against Inter, losing 1-0 at the San Siro and drawing 3-3 at the Camp Nou. Combined with two losses to Bayern, 2-0 away and 3-0 at home, the latter after Inter had already clinched qualification, and a sobering 3-1 defeat in the Clásico at the Bernabéu, the blaugrana were left with a bittersweet taste from the month of October. Second in the league table, just one point behind Madrid, November offers a pointless fixture away at Plzen to finish off the Champions League group stage and two very winnable league games – at home to Almeria and away at Osasuna – before league action stops until December 31 for the World Cup.
Although it is not unfeasible that Xavi’s side will top the league heading into the World Cup break, fans will have mixed feelings about having been dumped out of Europe’s elite competition so unceremoniously, and a Europa League campaign in the New Year will only really be compensated for by winning that tournament and mounting a serious challenge for the league.
To be fair to Xavi, his side did not look outclassed by any of Bayern, Inter or Real Madrid, except perhaps in the meaningless 3-0 home defeat to the Bavarians.
With the imperious Lewandowski up front alongside Dembélé and a slowly returning to top form Ansu Fati, and a dangerous looking Raphinya in the wings, the forward line looks more than good enough. And a midfield of Busquets, Gavi, Pedri and De Jong also constitutes an embarrassment of riches. Neither are there any questions over Ter Stegen in goal, the big German having set a record of 10 clean sheets in the opening 12 league games of the season. No, the problem has been a defence hampered by numerous injuries, costing Barça dearly in Europe. New signings Koundé and Alonso certainly seem to be at the right level, but the loss of the former along with Araújo for a few games, plus serious question marks over Eric García’s defensive solidity, have made the central defence weaker, while Hector Bellerín’s lack of match practice and Sergi Roberto’s lack of speed and defence nous have led Xavi to play the excellent Alex Baldé out of position at right back on several occasions. The feeling is that if Xavi can get his defence fit and consistent, then Barça will challenge for all remaining trophies this season.
Diego Martinez’ side continued to struggle in a month that saw them lose only one of six league games, but draw four. The first game of the month at home to Valencia was the most eventful of the bunch, with an Espanyol comeback from going behind, a sending off for both sides, and late drama robbing the periquitos of all three points. In truth, the damage was once again self-inflicted. Second-choice goalkeeper Álvaro Fernández had got his chance after Benjamin Lecomte was suspended for his sending off in the home defeat to Real Madrid. However, he committed an inexplicable error at the end of the game against Valencia with Espanyol 2-1 up after goals from Joselu and Darder had turned the game on its head. With almost the last action of the game, Fernández allowed a harmless ball into the box by Valencia defender Cömert to fall into the corner of his goal, kissing goodbye to two important points. Not surprisingly, it signalled the return of Lecomte. But the Frenchman continued Espanyol’s goalkeeping woes in the next game at Cádiz, when he missed a cross and the defence contrived to hand away the opener. Again Espanyol came from behind, two goals from Joselu turning it around, before veteran striker Lucas Pérez snatched a point for the home side in a game Espanyol again could easily have won. Joselu’s rich vein of form continued as he scored the winner in a 1-0 defeat of Valladolid at the RCDE stadium, the only win of the month. That was followed by the only defeat of the month, 1-0 at Osasuna. The last two games of October both brought draws, 2-2 at home to Elche and 1-1 at Mallorca.
Michel’s side suffered a mostly miserable October, six games yielding just three points, although the last of those, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, will be much cherished by fans. The month started with a chastening 5-3 loss at home to Real Sociedad, and this despite twice taking the lead after falling behind early on. The Basques showed their class in the second half, though, turning a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 victory. The following week saw a trip to Atlético, where Girona again fell behind to an early goal. A calamitous error by keeper Juan Carlos Martin handed Correa his second just after the break, and after a deflected Riquelme shot reduced the deficit for Michel’s men, only two spectacular Oblak saves from superb Aleix García strikes denied Girona a point.
Although a sloppy start to the second half saw Cádiz take the lead at Montilivi, constant pressure resulted in a deserved 101st minute equaliser by Stuani, albeit from the penalty spot. Girona fell behind again in their next game at Almeria, before comedy defending and an outrageous 40-yard free kick gave the hosts a three-goal cushion. A rousing comeback so nearly saw Girona snatch a point, but the game ultimately ended in a 3-2 defeat. Osasuna left Montilivi with a point in the last home game of the month, before Stuani was once again the man on the spot, tucking away a second-half penalty for a deserved equaliser to take a point from Real Madrid in the Bernabéu.