Part one can be found here
The trouble is, how do you follow perfection? The question now is: what comes next? That was exactly the question the coach was asking.
As Barcelona collected the Club World Cup, he turned to assistant Tito Vilanova and said, “Where do we go from here?”
There is a kind of curious logic that suggests life for Barcelona is no good precisely because it has been so good; that the pressure of living up to their own successes will derail them. When you have won everything the only thing left to do is lose. Barcelona winning the Club World Cup was almost good for Madrid as it finally closed their cycle. The end of the decade reinforced that feeling.
As if to prove the point, the first weekend back after the Christmas break offered Madrid the chance to go top of the table. Barcelona drew 1-1 with Villarreal – the first time they had dropped points at home all season. Madrid needed only to beat Osasuna to go top. “New Year, New Leader?” wondered the hopeful sports daily Marca.
In truth, it would have been an odd kind of top. Madrid would have been there on goal difference – the measure formally used at this stage of the season – but come May places are decided by head-to-head records and Barcelona have already beaten them this season. In any case, Madrid failed to win. Barcelona began 2010 where they had ended 2008 and spent the whole of 2009: at the top.
“[In terms of the future] things seemed black at the end of the year,” said Guardiola. “But having come back from the Christmas break and seen the attitude and hunger of the players, the desire to keep improving, it now looks light grey.” The argument that the only way was down had been left in tatters.
Only, it hadn’t. Not entirely. Barcelona had stumbled. They had performed poorly and dropped points. They had been fortunate not to be beaten. Still, there were reasons for optimism from Madrid; reasons to believe that Barcelona could not continue where they had left off.
In the aftermath of victory in Abu Dhabi, Guardiola’s mask of serenity slipped for the first time and he burst into tears – a first glimpse of the huge pressure he had been under, a first suggestion, however tentative, that he wasn’t quite so in control as everyone thought. He is yet to sign a contract extension with the club and presidential elections loom.
Worse, while Barcelona withstood the demands of an extremely packed fixture list to complete the dream year, this season promises to be even more intense. There is already a hint of tiredness about them, a feeling that they have become slower. The African Nations Cup sees Barcelona lose two of their four central midfielders. In January alone, with Seydou Keita and Yaya Toure out, they will play seven matches – nine if they get through the next round of the Spanish Cup against Sevilla. Madrid will play just five.
If they are to reach the Spanish and Champions League Finals again, Barcelona will play 65
games – three more than last season.
Barcelona’s squad is short. Few major additions have been made. Dmytro Chygrynskiy has hardly played, Maxwell is second choice behind Eric Abidal, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – while enjoying an excellent start – is a direct replacement for Samuel Eto’o. Thierry Henry is a year older and, although Pedro has really stepped up, Bojan’s progression appears to be stagnating.
Rotations are becoming fewer too, as the starting XI begins to look entrenched. More minutes are being played by fewer players.
And then there is Madrid. And only Madrid.
Sevilla have struggled to find inspiration when teams sit back against them, collecting just three points from the last 15 (plus they have lost Frederic Kanoute to the African Nations Cup). Valencia look the best bet to finish third but have dropped silly points at home.
Deportivo La Coruna simply do not have the creativity. Atletico Madrid’s crisis continues and their battle is now to claim a European place or maybe even just to survive. And meanwhile few believe that fourth-placed Mallorca will stay so far up the table – including their miracle-working coach, Gregorio Manzano. As for Villarreal, despite drawing with Barcelona, their awful start has left them with too much ground to make up.
Madrid are a very different proposition to last year and their challenge is a serious one. They are stronger, more talented, more balanced and more dangerous – as indeed they should be after an outlay of more than £200million.
It is no coincidence that the greatest spend in Madrid’s history followed the greatest success in Barca’s. The rest of the Spanish league has been left trailing but as 2010 begins, the battle for supremacy between the country’s two footballing giants promises to be compelling. l