Espanyol was a gift that kept on giving. A 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu and then a 4-0 hiding at the Camp Nou? Yes, please. Malaga ran out 3-2 winners against the capitaleños a week after fine performances by Roque Santa Cruz and Willy “Bill Gentleman” Caballero. It’s unlikely they’ll fall apart like the periquitos, but Barça is in absolutely outrageous form: even Alexis is scoring! [We’re going for the lowest common denominator now? -ed]
Outrageous form looks like this: 11 straight wins in the league dating back to the 4-5 win at Depor on October 20, a 7-0 aggregate score in the Round of 16 in the Copa del Rey, and a 1st place finish a Champions League group. 1 solitary loss (1!) and just 2 draws (2!) in 28 matches since the regular season kicked off. 2 losses and 2 draws in 30 matches if you add the Super Copa. And here’s the thing: Malaga, who are in 4th and are 9W-4D-5L (31pts) are anything but a bad side. Those 31 points put them on pace to be fourth in the English Premier League (tied with Everton with 36 points after 21 matches); put it another way: above Arsenal, Liverpool, Newcastle, and (of course) QPR. They’d be 5th in the Bundesliga, T-6th in Serie A, and 4th in Ligue 1.
They’ve allowed just 13 goals in 18 matches, by far the best in La Liga, bested in Europe by only Juventus (13 allowed in 19) and PSG (12 allowed in 20). That’s something even the official site had to talk about. They’ve allowed 9 at home and have scored 23 of their 28 goals there too. That gives them an 6W-1D-2L record at La Rosaleda. Turns out they’re good when they’re not on the road.
Let’s talk, quickly, about individuals:
Javier Saviola: a former Barça having a resurgent season of sorts. Last year he scored 6 goals in 30 matches. This year he’s already scored 6 goals in 21 appearances. He’s not setting the world on fire, but he’s also not failing to show up. I”m sure he’d love to get a goal against his former club.
Roque Santa Cruz: Two quickfire goals against RM sank the defending champs 2 matches ago. He’s got 7 goals in 23 matches, which is pretty solid. And some of the mods think that he’s quite attractive when he doesn’t wear a shirt. He might be tough to handle give his height, but his speed may fail him if he’s up against Mascherano. Against Pique it’s a different question.
Isco: He’s 20 and blowing the world away. Or at least the world that pays attention to good football. He’s this year’s Michu. Or maybe even Iago Aspas. Wait, Iago is currently the sensation. Can there be two revelatory midfield players in a single year? He’ll be the toughest of the bunch to handle and will be someone Sergio Busquets will have to keep a very close eye on. [Yes, I know that Aspas is considered a forward and often plays high up, but Cesc also plays high up. Is he a forward? Aspas is a creative player whose physical location on the field does not often signify his role in the team. A butterfly is neither butter nor a fly. Discuss.]
Willy Caballero: It could be argued that BILL GENTLEMAN was solely responsible for Madrid’s loss to Malaga with his terrific, constant saves. It could also be argued that BILL GENTLEMAN is a 500lbs Man Mountain who can palm a medicine ball, that he can shotgun a handle of whiskey while gently caressing a baby to sleep, that he can eat more buffalo wings than you. But for now we’ll just focus on his saves and how Barça is going to have to put the ball into the corners to get their goals.
As for the team in blaugrana, David Villa is injured, Adriano is returning, and Lionel Messi is going to want some playing time after being left on the bench against Cordoba. I bet he gets it. The squad:
Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Puyol, Bartra, Song, Mascherano, Alba, Adriano, Cesc, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Tello
Note the inclusion of Pedro. That’s not particularly noteworthy, except that today (January 12) is the 5th anniversary of his debut against Murcia. Read all about it. It would be wonderful to see him continue his good form (2 goals, 2 incorrectly disallowed goals against Espanyol) with a smashing game against Malaga. We’ll see, of course, if he even gets a start given Alexis’ goal all around good game against Cordoba. I kid. He’ll start, though Alexis getting a goal (much less 2) will be huge for his self confidence as well.
Official prediction: 2-3. A thriller, with Messi providing the grand finale in the final minutes with a brilliant solo effort to send the papers into a tizzy and the television crowd into absolute pandemonium. That’s quite the prediction, no? Messi (2), Iniesta, Isco (2).
And, because I simply can’t not talk about it, earlier this afternoon Real Madrid dropped more points, this time in a scoreless draw at Osasuna. This gives Barcelona an opportunity to make this a 2 horse race: Barça and Atleti. I honestly didn’t think I would be saying that at any point in the next 20 years. Jose Mourinho is imploding along with his team, Kaka the latest example of a player to lose his head in a moment of pure idiocy to earn himself a useless second yellow and deprive his team of a player down the stretch. These are the things players under immense pressure do when they begin to crack. We saw it some last year in Barça, but this is a different level. This is falling from grace like a meteor. They’ve dropped more points in 19 matches than they did in 38 last year, which is to say that they’re either gearing up for an insane second half or, far more likely, they’re going to continue to lose points at approximately this rate.