How vulnerable is Barcelona?

November, 30, 2011
11/30/11
10:33
AM ET

"Pulling back six points on Real Madrid isn't the greatest challenge I've ever had," said Pep Guardiola after a Saturday evening in the Spanish capital that left the champion trailing in the wake of Real Madrid by the largest margin since he took the reins at Camp Nou in 2008.

Barcelona found itself playing in the southern suburb of Getafe immediately after Real had dispatched Atletico 4-1 at the Bernabeu. At the Coliseum Alfonso Perez, meanwhile, Getafe achieved what no other side has this season and beat Barcelona. It was not attractive, with Getafe placing 10 men behind the ball, throttling Barca in midfield and scoring the game's only goal with its only shot on target. "The defeat is not terrible," Guardiola said. "There is plenty of league left to go."

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Getafe/Barcelona
David Ramos/Getty ImagesGetafe's lung-busting effort against Barcelona -- challenging for balls, closing down space and, yes, parking the bus -- handed the Catalans their first league loss this season.

The problem facing Guardiola is that Getafe will not be the only side to shut up shop when Barcelona comes to town, so his team can expect to be similarly confined in stadiums up and down the country between now and May. Upon buying Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2009, Guardiola announced that the bashful Swede would provide Barca with a Plan B. It was an experiment with mixed results; Ibrahimovic was worth a goal every two games and provided several assists, but he never really fit into the Barcelona system. With a Plan A that is so effective, it could be argued that Barca needs no alternative route to goal, but the short-passing game can be stifled if the opposition has the tactical blueprint correct and, more importantly, the legs and lungs to carry it out for 90 minutes.

Another conundrum is Lionel Messi, to whom the team naturally turns when a spot of individualism is required. Prolific at Camp Nou, only one of Messi's 16 league goals this season has been scored on the road. Barcelona has won two, tied three and lost one of its six matches outside Catalonia.

Still, Guardiola can be excused for adhering to the tried and tested: The loss at Getafe was only his ninth in charge of Barcelona, and five of those came in his first season, when the Catalans won the title by nine points. In 2009-10, the margin was three points. Last season, the gap was four points. Barcelona's room for maneuvering this season will be tighter still, with Real in the ascendence.

Jose Mourinho's team has won 13 consecutive matches with an aggregate score of 47-8. More importantly, it has done so playing both a possession-based game and by employing its lightning counterattacks. "We've taken a big step forward," Xabi Alonso said. "We are on a great run, not just in terms of results but also in the way we are playing. We want to continue doings things well to have a better chance to win all of our games, starting with Saturday's [at Sporting]."

Mourinho has always said his second season at any club is his best, and the statistics so far this year back his claim: Real has scored 13 more, conceded one less and has one more win and two more points than this stage last term.

Barcelona reeled Real in by three points Tuesday evening as it honored its Week 17 fixture against Rayo -- a routine 4-0 win at Camp Nou -- ahead of the Club World Cup in Japan in December. In the corresponding round of fixtures, the final match day before the winter break, Real faces a tricky trip to Sevilla, where the recuperation of those three points is far from guaranteed. The week beforehand, on Dec. 10, is the first Clasico of the season, at the Bernabeu. Never since Guardiola arrived at Barcelona has Real been in a better position to exploit its great rival's weaknesses, and never has there been a better moment for Mourinho to display the veracity of his second-season success.

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