Pitchside Europe

Why February is the cruellest month for Barca

February is usually the worst of months for Barcelona; season after season, they stutter.

In 2010-11, their 16-match winning run came to an end in the year’s second month with a draw against Sporting Gijon. They were also beaten by Arsenal in London. A year earlier, 2009-10, they lost for the first time that season, at Atletico Madrid, and were also held by Stuttgart in Europe.

Last year, they were defeated at Osasuna in February – only their second loss of the season. And in 2009, the year they won all six trophies, they tripped in February too, with a draw against Betis and a loss to Espanyol. In Europe, they were held by Lyon.

It’s February, so Barca’s seemingly unstoppable march to the title will slow. It already has. After finishing the first half of the season better than any team in the history of Spanish football, they’ve drawn three matches and lost once in their last six games in all competitions.

The team look tired and when you’re tired you make mistakes. Barca’s losses have been marked by defensive errors, be they a red card or sloppy marking. It remains a surprise that they haven’t bought a centre half. Teams have grown in confidence and taken the game to them. Very few Spanish teams do what Chelsea did against Barcelona last season. Their view is: ‘We’re going to lose, so we may as well give it our best shot attacking.’

Nineteenth-placed Osasuna went at Barca in Camp Nou last week. They were undone by a first-half sending off and lost 5-1, but they were typical of the sides who think that attack is the best form of defence against the champions, with three advanced lines of players, and disciplined 20-metre gaps between them.

Barca don’t always help themselves. They’re not rotating their squad as much as in the past and substitutions are less frequent too. And by February, the twice weekly onslaughts are taking their toll. The Catalans played their part in an engrossing clasico at the Bernabeu last week, but stand-in coach Jordi Roura admitted they’re tired. So why wait until the 75th minute to make a first substitution – the still disappointing Alexis Sanchez - and the 84th minute for a second?

The players hardly rest. As you read this most of them will be in Qatar. With nine of the probable starting XI for Spain’s friendly against Uruguay in Qatar tonight coming from their team, over 80 per cent of Barça fans think the friendlies played by the Spanish national side hinder their team. Feelings aren’t quite as strong when Barca’s form reads WWWWWW.

As AC Milan will have noted ahead of their forthcoming Champions League game against Barca, teams are getting breaks and have found a way through. Real Sociedad won by putting in excellent crosses, while a much-improved Valencia came close to beating them on Sunday at the Mestalla.

Valencia’s recent improvement (five wins, a draw and two defeats) is down to the appointment of former Athletic and Barca forward (and ex-manager of Athletic, Espanyol, Villarreal and Olympiacos) Ernesto Valverde in December. His side get forward and work hard to get the ball back.

His honest, straight-forward style didn’t work at Villarreal, but it’s having results down the coast at the Mestalla, where he should be kept on beyond the end of his June contract. Valencia have crept back into European contention, but forget about next season: they play Paris Saint-Germain at home on Tuesday in this season’s Champions League.

Back to Barca. They collapsed after their last decent February in 2008, when Frank Rijkaard lost his job, but a similar loss of form is implausible this season. With a huge lead, the Catalans can afford to slip too. The problem for opponents is that March follows February, when Barca get their form back together.

Those Champions League last-16 second leg matches are usually in March in Camp Nou. And don’t Arsenal, Lyon, Leverkusen and Stuttgart know it. Barca have hit three, four, five and seven goals in those return legs.

Tito Vilanova’s side are hardly being chased down in the league either. Real Madrid’s loss at Granada meant they increased their lead over Jose Mourinho’s side to 16 points and they’re still nine ahead of second-placed Atletico, who’ve won all 12 of their home league games and beat Betis on Sunday.

This column will be going to watch Atletico next week, and also a Betis game with their fans in two weeks, and will report back on their impressive, if inconsistent, season so far.

Barca fans, meanwhile, will be cheered when Lionel Messi signs a contract extension on Thursday which will keep him at Camp Nou until 2018. Their side isn’t in Champions League action next week, but Madrid are in the most eagerly awaited match of the year so far against Manchester United.

Cristiano Ronaldo has commented this week that his new side are better than his old one (as if he could say any different). That’s Ronaldo who headed another goal at the weekend. Unfortunately for him, it was into his own goal as Madrid lost once against in Andalusia. They’ve been beaten at Sevilla, Malaga, Betis and now Granada – all four top-flight Andalusian teams.

So which Madrid will turn up against United? The one stuffed with world class players who can demolish any team in the world? Or the one riddled with internal conflict which has lost more games on the road at this point in the season than any Madrid side since 1998-99?

Madrid are still in two cup competitions, the other being the Copa del Rey. Fortunately for them, the second leg against Barcelona is in February and not March.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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