Barcelona enter the delicate phase of their 'atrocious' fixture list
Sport claimed it was worthy of a heart attack; Barcelona manager Luis Enrique called it "atrocious." Whichever way you look at it, Barcelona's run-in during the first two months of 2016 is an ugly one, and while the Catalans may appear to be stable in their league and cup standings at the moment, the ground beneath their feet is deceptively shaky.
Slip up in the next few weeks, and the margin of error for the rest of the season will be slim to non-existent. Grind the tough spell out, and retaining the treble will become a much more realistic prospect.
Luis Enrique's damning verdict of Barca's schedule was delivered the day before visiting Malaga in round 21 of La Liga. Only three days prior, they had taken part in an exhausting, high-tempo Copa del Rey clash at the San Mames, barely escaping with a 2-1 win. "I hope the demands of that game don't affect us,"he noted, rather ominously.
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But it certainly did affect Barca. "It's difficult to have such a crap first half. Impossible to remember one as bad," snarled the Asturian following the final whistle at La Rosaleda. In Andalucia, the Blaugrana delivered one of their poorest performances of the season. Making basic errors when initiating moves, showing a passiveness in midfield that allowed Malaga to disrupt the flow of the game, and even failing to release their so-often decisive strikers for the majority of the 90 minutes, it wasn't a very Barcelona-like showing.
That uncharacteristic afternoon was a small sign that Barca are becoming fatigued -- not necessarily physically, but mentally. The brand of football perfected at the Camp Nou requires exceptional concentration. Movements -- particularly at the back and in the midfield -- are finely-tuned and repetitively trained.
Maintaining the near 100 percent focus required to pull that off effectively over the course of a season can be a massive burden on the mind, particularly when fixtures become congested. But "congested" feels like far too kind a description of their diary at the moment. Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 30, Barcelona will have played Espanyol three times, Athletic Bilbao three times, then finished the month off with the high-stakes visit of Atletico Madrid.
All three teams make for uniquely intense occasions. The derbies are mismatches on the pitch, but off it, they created a great deal of controversy in the city the club inhabits, the war of words between the two big Catalan sides descending to its nastiest level for years. The Basques, for their part, provide a more physical kind of battering, exemplified by the frantic finale of the last cup game between the two sides at the San Mames.
As if all of that wasn't enough, the defending league champions then end the first month of 2016 with the task of breaking down the best defence in Europe. Atletico's eight goals conceded will be tough to add to, but the pressure is particularly high given the potentially decisive nature of the game in swaying the league title race.
This is not an easy month, and February isn't going to be any simpler. Progress in the Copa del Rey, and the first semifinal will be played on Feb. 3. After that, a relatively straightforward trip to Levante on Feb. 7 follows, but the respite is agonisingly brief. From Feb.10, when the theoretical second leg of the Copa semifinal would be played, Barca are hit with a series of jabs then a left-right combination that could knock them for six.
Punch No. 1: Celta Vigo return to the Camp Nou on the Feb. 14 in the hope of replicating the win they picked up at the same stadium last season. Three days later, it's off to El Molinon for punch No. 2, a vital game in hand against Sporting. Slip up there, and the situation at the top of the table could change.
Time to breathe? Not even close. Punch No. 3 is delivered on Saturday, Feb. 20, when there's the treat of the equivalent of a European away game, as Barca are asked to make a three-hour flight to North Africa for their meeting with Las Palmas. Only three days later, it's Arsenal away in the Champions League, the previous away editions of which have rarely been simple for the Catalans. The month finishes with Sevilla at the Camp Nou on Feb. 28, and if the Sevilla that have already taken points from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid shows up, they could be a nightmare. A potential knockout blow, even.
That may sound dramatic, but there's no escaping the fact that between the usual competitions and the addition of the three Super Cups, Barcelona are asked to play a large number of games in 2015-16. For evidence of the toll that can take, the example of Real Madrid last season stands out.
Prior to the Club World Cup in December 2014, Carlo Ancelotti's side were firing on all cylinders, with 20 wins in a row in all competitions. They then went on to collapse in the period between mid-January and mid-March, eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Atletico Madrid, dropping key points to the same team in the league, and finally conceding top spot in La Liga after further stumbles against Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao.
With the possibility of playing as many as 10 games between Jan. 27 and Feb. 28, Luis Enrique's choice of "atrocious" to describe the hand his team have been dealt with seems apt. Barcelona's calendar will go through peaks and troughs between now and the summer. At the moment, they're in the middle of the steep climb, potentially waiting as long as March 5 for the privilege of playing only one game in a week.
The task is to arrive at that point in a position to continue competing on three fronts when trophies are settled from the spring onwards. Next on the list, staying in the Copa del Rey.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @LeeRoden89.