x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Copa del Rey: Real Madrid look to pounce on teetering Barcelona

Catalans hold a slight advantage for return leg at Camp Nou having scored an away goal in draw at Bernabeu last week, writes Andy Mitten.

Lionel Messi will hope to fire Barcelona into the final tonight at Real Madrid's expense. Luca Bruno / AP Photo
Lionel Messi will hope to fire Barcelona into the final tonight at Real Madrid's expense. Luca Bruno / AP Photo

BARCELONA // The Barcelona fan reached for his white handkerchief and waved it vigorously. It was half time on Saturday night and his side were losing 1-0 to Sevilla.

It was not the white flag of surrender in temperatures so cold that snow fell in Barcelona on Saturday, but of indignation. He was in a tiny minority of a dozen, but some Barcelona fans have the shortest of memories.

Little over a month ago, when Lionel Messi walked off the podium in Zurich with a fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or and the Catalans had got off to a best ever first half of the season in Spanish football history, Barcelona were being heralded as the greatest team in the world.

There was a consensus that the players were so good that it did not matter who coached them.

Tito Vilanova had taken over from his former boss Pep Guardiola in a seamless transition last July, before Vilanova joined Guardiola in New York. Guardiola had chosen a year out, Vilanova went for cancer treatment.

How much his absence has been down to Barcelona's poor form since is debatable. They came back to win against Sevilla on Saturday and Messi scored in a 15th consecutive league game as they maintained their 15-point advantage at the top of the Primera Liga, but they were beaten 2-0 at AC Milan last week in the first leg of their last 16 Uefa Champions League encounter, a deficit that 53 per cent of Barcelona fans in one newspaper poll consider insuperable. Such pessimism has not been seen since the final stages of Frank Rijkaard's reign five years ago.

Brush away the sabre rattling from Xavi about this generation of fans needing to see a great Remontada (comeback) and Barcelona do not look as formidable as they did.

Rivals may not come close to getting the same percentage of possession, but they are having more success getting results. For all their possession against Milan, Barcelona had just one shot on target - and that from 25 yards.

The Catalans were undone by a set piece and a counter-attack. Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas had undefined roles and they did not have their coach present to have a word when they went behind.

Technology allows link-ups to Vilanova in New York, but it cannot compete with a face-to-face chat.

Teams are losing their fear of Barca, the goals have stopped flowing and the unbeaten record has long gone. Until they had a player sent off, even bottom of the table Osasuna had success recently by playing a high defensive line because Barcelona no longer have the same threat of attackers running on to passes.

Critics suggest that Barca are over-reliant on the same first XI, with substitutes such as Alexis Sanchez making insufficient impact.

In turn, rivals exploit the space behind Barca's attacking full-backs Daniel Alves and Jordi Alba, exposing a vulnerability few had previously uncovered in what is an at times frail looking Catalan defence.

Barca have wobbled in February before, but they also now have it tough well into March. Starting tonight in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Real Madrid, they face Madrid away at the weekend and before the Milan home leg on March 12.

Jose Mourinho will have been encouraged by such evidence of Barca's weaknesses as he prepares his team for tonight.

It may well be his last trip to Camp Nou as the Madrid manager and he takes a 1-1 draw from the first leg to a 98,000 sell-out crowd, but victory in the domestic and European cups will help turn Madrid's poor season into a successful one.

As he left the podium in Zurich, an exasperated Cristiano Ronaldo asked a friend what he needed to do to win the Ballon d'Or.

He can help his cause immensely by playing as well as he did in the league last season against a wobbling Barca tonight.



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