They’re 15-1-0 and there are plenty of ways to criticize them. They’re 9 points up on second place and there’s a sense that they haven’t yet come together as a team. They’ve scored 54 games in 16 league matches (more than 3 goals a match) and the strike force isn’t putting together complete games. Lionel Messi has been scoring an absurd number of goals–16 in his last 8!–but he’s phoning it in so often it sometimes looks like he’s somewhere else. As in, literally somewhere else: if they cut to Messi and he was in street clothes in 20th minute, it wouldn’t be surprising.
And yet, they’re winning. And how. A solitary loss away to Celtic in the Champions League. Two dropped points in the league to the fiercest of rivals.
With Tito’s absence, the squad will most likely be extra motivated. They’ll want to score, want to kick out the massive jams, earn the plaudits going into Christmas. And really, 49 points before the break would be an outrageous number. Keeping Atleti at 9 points and Real Madrid at 13 would be fantastic. There’s outsized pressure on Jose Mourinho because of that gap. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel–not even La Decima can shine into December–and, truth be told, that’s how I like it.
So it’s to Valladolid the team goes–pucela de mi vida just a few weeks ago before they capitulated to an Ozil double–and the test won’t be easy. Valladolid have allowed the same number of goals as Barça: 18. They do sit in 10th, 24 points behind first place. They’re scoring just over a goal a game overall, but almost 2 a game at home. Of course, 6 of their 15 goals came from their 6-1 demolition of Rayo Vallecano in late September. They’re unlikely to repeat that outcome against Barça, but I suppose you never really know.
It’s Óscar that’s driving their team these days, the 30-year old midfielder has 7 goals, a remarkable number given his prior full season stats (6, 3, etc). Manucho has 6 (2 against RM). The awesomely named Patrick Ebert has 3 along with Victor. This is not a run-and-gun team, of course, but they’re capable on their day and actually somewhat interesting to watch. A break for a moment: the EPL is “the greatest league in the world” because it’s so equal, so competitive. Naturally that’s a subjective statement, but here’s something interesting: La Liga’s worst team is Depor with 12 points. There two teams in the EPL with fewer points: QPR (10) and Reading (9). Jump up the table a bit to 10th and you have Swansea City on 23, just one more point than Valladolid. At the top, Manchester United (42) are duking it out with Manchester City (36). Sigh. The difference between United and Reading is just one point different from the difference between Barça and Depor. But of course it’s wildly uneven! Argh.
Back to the real question: what will the final score be? With no Song and no Adriano (out for precautionary reasons with slight knocks), one hopes that a squad of Valdés, Pinto, Dani Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Villa, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi, Thiago, Dos Santos, Mascherano, Bartra, Sergio, Pedro, Jordi Alba, and Montoya will be enough. Hopefully Alves is actually fully recovered, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Montoya get a game. Messi will play, of course.
Predicted lineup: Valdes, Montoya, Pique, Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis, Cesc, Messi.
That’s some pretty ferocious verticality if Jordi Roura so chooses to employ it that way. Or ridiculous midfield control. Or just a bunch of hogwash meandering around in a pre-Christmas daze. More fruitcake! Less running!
Official Prediction: 1-3. Goals by Messi (2, duh), Alexis. Yeah, I’m calling it. Calling an Alexis goal. Wow. If I get this one right…