Euphoric Barcelona can't afford to lose focus at Eibar
Barcelona are currently going through a positive period, which is a huge relief considering that the club was on the verge of self-destruction only 10 weeks ago.
The disheartening defeat at Anoeta against Real Sociedad in early January triggered a series of events which shook Barca's institutional structure to the very core. Club superstar Lionel Messi could simply not see eye-to-eye with manager Luis Enrique, president Josep Maria Bartomeu sacked highly-criticised sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, then was forced into calling for a presidential election a year earlier than previously anticipated due to mounting pressure at every level.
- Moreno: Ramos would choose Barca before Man United
- Neymar out of Copa as Brazil drop appeal
- Laporta would scrap Qatar sponsorship deal
- Abidal lined up for Camp Nou return
- Tomas: Rakitic embraced his role and thrived
- Benedito: Barca won't pay €80 million for Pogba
- Spanish court to hear Neymar investor
In short, Barcelona was in such a mess that fears of yet another season in the shadows were totally justified at that point.However, and as it often the case in world football, a continued string of positive results has managed to calm the tense situation which was seriously threatening the club's short and long-term future.
Despite the huge criticism he has been forced to endure since taking control at the Camp Nou, full credit must be given to Luis Enrique. If the team has become a much more cohesive, harmonic unit in the past couple of months, it is certainly thanks to the way in which the Asturian has adapted his managerial style to suit the needs of the high-profile international players within his squad.
Messi is no longer an unsettled star feeling misunderstood by his coach, but a generous leader who understands his role in order to maximise his teammates' emerging skills. Sure, the Argentinean forward is not likely to become best buddies with Luis Enrique any time soon, but at least their more apparent courteous relationship is less likely to turn the club upside down again anytime soon.
The immense progress in terms of individual performance from key players such as Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic has not come by chance either. Their visible improvement at every level is a direct result of Luis Enrique's continued trust in their abilities, especially during difficult times following either an obvious mistake during a game or even a painful defeat.
The manager's changing approach to personal relationships has not gone unnoticed either. While Cules have already established that Luis Enrique is not likely to ever reach the level of personal charm and emotional intelligence of the legendary Pep Guardiola, it is clear that a more decisive attempt to bring key players on board has been made in recent times.
The current Barcelona is a much more direct team which rivals haven't quite managed to find a way to stop yet. Their less speculative midfield transitions make their attacking efforts much more dynamic and effective. The endless possibilities that having an on-form trident with Messi, Neymar and Suarez brings make predicting their movements a virtually impossible mission for opponents.
With the endless passing combinations across the park becoming less and less important within Barca's attacking system, experienced La Masia graduates such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets have been inevitably forced to adapt their game. The more physical approach that first-season players Rakitic and Rafinha are capable of bringing does give them a slight edge over their more established teammates, especially when facing physically powerful rivals away from the Camp Nou.
Barcelona's back line is no longer leaking the frustrating amount of goals which denied the club of much-needed silverware last season. The combination of Pique's more professional attitude, Javier Mascherano's outstanding understanding of the game, Jeremy Mathieu's experience and Marc Bartra's hunger is working wonders at the heart of defence. The increased defensive focus that both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba have added to their game does make Barca's defence much more solid, robust and, ultimately, better prepared for success.
Currently unemployed Zubizarreta was largely unable to attract high-calibre defenders to the Camp Nou, as the combined 73 minutes of league football that summer signings Douglas Pereira and Thomas Vermaelen have enjoyed clearly demonstrate. However, the Basque director was definitely right about signing Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen to replace Victor Valdes. Both goalkeepers continue to challenge for the starting spot on a daily basis, a healthy competition which has resulted on consistently excellent performances.
Regardless of how delighted Barcelona supporters may feel at this stage, the undeniable truth is that the team hasn't won any titles at this stage of the season. Sure, the many tweaks introduced by Luis Enrique have made the team much more robust in every area, but losing focus by dreaming about an eventual treble would be an unforgivable mistake. It is time for the team to ignore the insistent, euphoric noise around them and focus on Saturday's away clash at Eibar. It is perhaps not the most glamorous occasion, but certainly the most important at this point.
Sure, talking about the clasico or the possibility of knocking Manchester City out of the Champions League is incredibly exciting, but full respect must be given to the very next rival as, otherwise, the current positive momentum would be lost.
The quote: "We are training hard and the way we get on together really helps. There's a great atmosphere, we are playing our game better every match and we are looking strong" -- Neymar.