Barcelona put in a dominant performance at Real Betis to extend their LaLiga lead to 11 points over second-placed Atletico Madrid but need to make sure they peak in May.
Barcelona’s 5-0 romp against Real Betis on Sunday night left no room for doubt that the Catalan club are currently in a fine place, and are surely the team to beat in the Champions League as well as La Liga.
If any nerves had been set jangling by the midweek Copa del Rey loss against near neighbours Espanyol, those doubts were dispelled with a genuinely awesome performance at the Estadio Benito Villamarin.
The most impressive aspect of Barca’s win on Sunday night was that it was initially hard-earned, no matter what the final scoreline might suggest.
Betis are a good team with a clear tactical plan, and they headed into the contest high on confidence after an excellent run of form since Christmas, including the ultimate morale-booster of a 5-3 local derby win at Sevilla.
And in the opening stages, Betis’s confidence was plain to see. Manager Quique Setien surprised Barca by giving his team a new formation, playing with three at the back and moving captain Joaquin – usually a winger – into a central position where his man-marking job on Sergio Busquets was just as important as his creativity.
And Betis started the game very well, fashioning the first opportunity which Andres Guardado fizzed wide of the post and generally more than matching their illustrious visitors, who struggled to escape Betis’s determined pressing to gain any time on the ball and were unable to get key man Lionel Messi involved.
But Barca buckled down, weathered the storm and gradually came more into the game after manager Ernesto Valverde made a tactical tweak by moving Sergi Roberto into a more central position, evening up the numbers in that part of the pitch and freeing Messi.
The outcome is plain to see, with Barca getting their noses in front with a well-worked goal for Ivan Rakitic and then never looking back, running rings around the tired hosts for the final 30 minutes and looking capable of scoring every time they came forward. But it hadn’t been easy.
The game was a tactical triumph for Valverde, who can be delighted that his team can win in a variety of ways.
Jordi Alba, for example, did not really feature as an attacking force in this game despite having been a key outlet and collaborator with Messi during many recent contests. And although Luis Suarez ended up with two goals, on this occasion he was just as important as a creator, dropping deep to link up play and doing so to great effect by slicing open the Betis defence for Rakitic’s opener.
All things considered, Barca are looking extremely strong. They are solid at the back, have options in midfield, Suarez is back to his best and Messi…well, Messi has somehow managed to out-Messi himself in the last few weeks.
What’s more, there’s reason to believe that Barca can get even better, with skipper Andres Iniesta missing Sunday’s game and new signings Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele – a mere £300 million-worth of talent – recovering from injuries.
The one note of caution, however, is the fairly straightforward observation that it is January and, as the cliché goes, you don’t win any titles in January.
That’s not strictly true, because Barca have more or less wrapped up the league title already, but their main objective now must be regaining the Champions League crown – an even more attractive proposition after Real Madrid took that prize two years in a row.
To see off the likes of Chelsea, Madrid, PSG and Manchester City on the European stage, Barca will need to keep on performing at their current level, and sustaining this kind of form over the next four months will be close to impossible.
That’s not to suggest that Barca should deliberately allow their form to dip so they can then improve for the run-in, but they need ensure that both mentally and physically, their season peaks in May rather than February.
This is exactly what Madrid achieved last season, when they blasted through the last two months of the season looking as unbeatable as Barca do right now. But Madrid also offer a cautionary tale because we’ve seen this season just how easy it can be, even for the very best teams, to suddenly suffer a serious dip in collective and individual form.
So Barca can be delighted with their current performances, but there’s still a very long way to go.