FC Barcelona have drawn their last three games–Valencia, Real Madrid in Copa del Rey, and Athletic Bilbao–all three of which being played within eight days of each other. With the games coming just as the season arrives into the decisive period where the cup fortunes begin to materialize from the murky winter months, there is some panic that Barça are showing signs of wear and weakness when it matters most.
In truth the games have not been great to watch, with the most scintillating moments of play being seemingly reserved for the miles ahead of this crunching tundra. Valverde has rotated his squad, through necessity and apparent minute managing, so that Jordi Alba did not play. Additionally, Arthur didn’t get the start in mid-field, with Arturo Vidal instead getting the nod alongside Rakitic and Busquets. Just a few days before, Messi did not start the Copa clash with Madrid–with some lingering concerns over the knock he suffered in the game against Valencia just prior.
With the failure of the Blaugrana in last year’s Champions league quarter finals against Roma still stinging, it seems the club’s obsession with winning the big eared trophy is causing the manager to guard especially against fatigue for his titular 11. As a result, Messi, Alba, and Busquets have all been rested more than they were last season.
The problem with this prudence has been the lack of end-product from the rest of the squad–namely, Coutinho. The little Brazilian has struggled to assert himself and play with the “magic” he was ostensibly purchased for. He is neither an assist and possession genius like Iniesta, nor is he an individual wunderkind like Neymar. He seems to be attempting to ride both of those horses with one ass, consequently going in neither direction.
In fact, the only person on the pitch at San Mamés that did look much like an explosive upstart was Bilbao’s Iñaki Williams, who would have won the game if it weren’t for Ter Stegen’s massive presence in goal.
The game ended a nil-nil draw, and it felt that the team were playing with the hand brake on. Like this was not a test worth suffering strain over. The idea of going eight points ahead of Madrid in second place, as opposed to maintaining a six point lead in the league, was weighed as less important than staying crisp for the Champions League first leg against Lyon in ten days. All that is needed is to maintain this advantage, and to listen to the warnings of muscle cramps and dead legs.
If possible, to rotate enough against Valladolid (currently in 15th place) for the coming weekend, after which come Lyon, and then Madrid twice again at the end of the month. Fortunately, though there hasn’t been much spark in the team’s play, the game did see the late return of Dembélé who has been out for weeks with an ankle sprain. He got a run out and will almost certainly take his place back in the starting attacking line now that Coutinho has struggled to ignite in his time up front.
It is a cautious time. The late hours of a cold and tiring winter; A squad saving its best play for the act that’s yet to come.