Most of my Saturdays this fall have followed the same pattern. Wake up. Play with the older son for a while. Go out for lunch. Come home. Watch Michigan lose. Watch college football go on without the Wolverines. In a normal year, this would drive me batty. This year, thanks to GolTV, I always had a nice dessert after a wretched main course: a DVRed Barcelona game. Saturday night, when the family are all asleep, I could take my mind off of Michigan's latest failure by watching my favorite futbol side dismantle some hapless La Liga opponent.
For a while, I was trying to be cautious. Sure, Barca were putting up 4-0 scorelines with regularity, but they hadn't played any of the top sides in Spain and their Champions League group was the easiest of the eight. (Then again, Inter were probably saying the same thing when they were drawn with Bremen, Panathiniakos, and Anothorsis Famagusta [from Cyprus, naturally] and they contrived to finish second in that group.) Through a quirk in La Liga's schedule, Barca would play the other four contenders in succession in four week in November and December: at Sevilla, home to Valencia, home to Real Madrid, at Villarreal. Barca are now halfway through this stretch and have a 3-0 win over Sevilla and a 4-0 win over Valencia to their credit.
Madrid arrive at the Nou Camp on Saturday at 10 p.m. local time. Based on the form of the two sides, they are going to get smacked around something fierce. The Barca-Real Madrid rivalry has featured more than its share of blowouts, the most recent coming in the teams' last meeting last spring at the Bernabeu. At that time, Madrid had just clinched the league, Barca were in freefall, and the Catalans were subjected to the humiliation of having to form a guard of honor for Los Merengues as they took the field. Deco and Eto'o chose to avoid the humiliation by getting yellow cards in the preceding match, thus precipitating Barca's decision to put those two, along with the artist formerly known as Ronaldinho, on the market. Barca were an embarrassment in the match against Madrid, losing 4-1.
Fast forward seven months. Madrid are in shambles after their tedious fumbling in the backseat pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo failed over the summer. They've lost three of their last four and sit night points back in La Liga. By Sunday night, they could be out of all of the European spots. They were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Real Union Irun. Who? Exactly. They've just sacked their manager for suggesting that his side have no chance of winning El Clasico this weekend. (Real's appointment of Juande Ramos is the only factor that give Madridistas any hope that their side can get a result this weekend. Madrid can play a new style and they will certainly play harder for a coach who has not lost the dressing room. Barca fans can testify to that latter point.)
Meanwhile, Barca have not lost a match since the opening match of the season (excluding the meaningless Champions League tie on Tuesday in which Barca deployed its reserves). The Blaugrana have scored 44 goals in 14 league matches and have a ludicrous goal difference of +35. With the standard caveat that so much can change between now and the Champions League Final in Rome in May, Barca are the best team in Europe.
So how did this happen? Sid Lowe has a very perceptive piece on the changes that Barca has made under Pep Guardiola. He hits on all of the major factors: better team attitude, a renewed commitment to playing Barca's traditional style, intense pressure all over the pitch, and great players.
Barca's purchase of Dani Alves has been a game changer because he allows Barca to deploy three of the top players in the world - Alves, Messi, and Xavi - on the same side. Last year, Messi's tendency to drift in from the right (and Iniesta's similar tendency on the left) made Barca easy to defend because their 4-3-3 ended up being narrow. This year, with Alves posing such a threat wide on the right and Henry playing more as a true left winger, Barca is a wider team and that creates more open spaces for Messi to cut in and for Xavi to make runs into the box.
Barca's pressing style has also been effective. The offensive players all get after opponents as soon as they lose the ball. Barca's defense is not airtight by any means. I'd feel comfortable with a Puyol-Milito pairing at the center of defense; Pique-Marquez (with Puyol filling on on the left for an injured Eric Abidal) is a confidence-inspiring pairing. That said, Barca can get away with an average backline when opponents never see the ball because Barca is constantly taking it from them.
One last factor that has improved this year has been Barca's play on set pieces. Lowe covers their effectiveness on offensive set pieces, but I've been more impressed by Barca's defensive work on opposition corners and free kicks. This was always a bugaboo under Rijkaard. This year, Barca look like a more organized, focused team and that really shows up when they defend set pieces. They're like a football team that is rock solid on special teams; you just know that they look this way because they're well-coached. Hopefully, the proof will be on display tomorrow. I'm just itching to post a certain celebratory chant fron Samuel Eto'o...