After sustaining their first defeat since August in the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie with city rivals Espanyol two weeks ago, Barcelona have roared back to keep their bid for a treble on track. Barça notched four wins out of four—by a combined score of 10-1 since their defeat—overturning their cup deficit and extending their lead in the league. The club remain undefeated in La Liga this campaign, 11 points clear atop the table, and have reached the semifinals of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League round of 16. Yet they will be tested on all fronts in the coming weeks.
Make or break month
With eight matches between February 1st and March 1st, Barça are entering the most testing period of their season. Along with five matches in the league, the club must face their two-leg Copa del Rey semifinal with Valencia, as well as the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. If results go their way, Barça could end the month in a very strong position in their silverware aspirations for 2018. Conversely, a run of bad results could leave their dreams in tatters.
While Barça’s blistering start to the campaign has them primed to retake the La Liga crown from Real, the club’s upcoming matches are by no means walkovers. First up is a city derby with Espanyol. Though they may still be smarting due to their cup elimination at Barça’s hands earlier this month, the cross town club will come into the derby with the confidence of knowing that they have already bested their illustrious neighbors in 2018. The next three fixtures after that are all against teams in the top half of the table. A match with lowly Las Palmas on March 1st is perhaps the only respite.
After a 1-0 win on February 1st, Barça take a slim lead to the Mestalla in their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia. Los Che are revitalized this season, sitting third in the league, and will not go quietly on their home ground. Later in the month, Barcelona renew their budding rivalry with Chelsea in the Champions League round of 16. Though the two meet infrequently, the clashes tend to be memorable. En route to the title, Barça eliminated Chelsea in the 2008/09 semifinals via Andrés Iniesta’s stoppage time equalizer. Chelsea returned the favor in the 2011/12 edition on their way to lifting the trophy, ousting holders Barça thanks to a late Fernando Torres goal. A tie without incident this time around seems very unlikely.
An already strong squad received reinforcements during the January window. The arrival of Philippe Coutinho, long a target for the club, as well as defender Yerry Mina bring depth to the midfield and back line. Mina has yet to feature for the club, though he adds much needed cover for regular central defensive pairing Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti after the departure of Javier Mascherano. With three appearances under his belt, Coutinho will no doubt need time to adjust to the club and its style of play. However, if he is able to make an impact similar to that of his countryman Paulinho, who has anchored the midfield and chipped in with eight league goals, Barça will be pleased with their investment.
Along with these additions, Barça are benefitting from Luis Suárez’s return to form. The forward endured a slow start to the campaign, with five goals in his first 13 league matches and none throughout the Champions League group stage. Since the turn of December, the Uruguayan has been back to his best, bagging 11 goals in eight in the league, while adding another three in four cup matches. The club will need their number nine to maintain this level of production if they are to continue to compete on multiple fronts.
Despite their stellar start to the season, questions remain going forward. Manager Ernesto Valverde has done brilliantly in getting his side to adapt to a 4-4-2 formation. Barcelona have excelled in the new setup, which limits their defensive exposure, albeit at the expense of the free-flowing attacking of previous years. But the addition of Coutinho and the expected return of Ousmane Dembélé from his second lengthy injury layoff raise concerns about how the manager will accommodate the club’s wealth of talent. If both are to play together, maintaining a 4-4-2 seems difficult. Will Valverde change his shape to make space for his quality players? Or will he stick with the formation that has yielded so much success, and leave a €100m player on the bench?
How Valverde manages his squad, both on and off the field, will go a long way to determining the level of his club’s success this year. If he is able to find the right formula for satisfying his marquee players while not sacrificing the solidity of his team, Barça might well be on their way to a third treble in a decade.