Barcelona are winning but not playing well ahead of Juventus, Valencia tests
The Spanish season has been so remarkable, so unpredictable and so topsy-turvy that few seem to have noticed Barcelona are posting record numbers despite playing quite poorly. If you are a Barca fan then there's ample excuse for being joyous about the situation and defensive in the face of constructive criticism.
From losing Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in a comical manner to failing with the pursuit of key targets like Philippe Coutinho and Marco Verratti and being humiliated by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, then seeing Ousmane Dembele fall to a desperate injury, is sufficient context for those who adore Barça to say: "I can't believe how good things look right now."
But, if you are objective, recent squalls that have seen them scrape home in games which should have been won comfortably, as well as being outplayed by smaller, struggling teams and becoming overly reliant on just three or four players, look set to give way to stormy weather between now and the Christmas shutdown.
Indeed, it was telling that, on Sunday, Barcelona used their own Twitter account to post a picture of Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Lionel Messi embracing with the text: "The two biggest reasons we are where we are right now."
Although it missed one or two of the important supporting cast -- Samuel Umtiti particularly, plus Sergio Busquets, Paulinho and Jordi Alba -- the admission was right on the money.
Messi's genius keeps opening up or deciding games at one end, while Ter Stegen has made more excellent saves in the first third of this season than in all of last term combined. Were he not in the form of his life, the two big Madrid clubs would be within touching distance of Barcelona and Valencia would be leaders.
This is not a gratuitous attack on Barcelona's achievements; Ernesto Valverde has added defensive rigour, he's altered the main system three times to good effect and he's had to achieve a great deal in a short time against a backdrop of institutional and civic chaos. Kudos to him for that.
But the week ahead brings stern tests. Juventus might not have shown stellar form in losing to Sampdoria at the weekend but, when they were dispatched at the Camp Nou in what was not only Barcelona's best display all season but their only truly impressive and dominant 90 minutes, the Vecchia Signora was missing a raft of vital players.
More, Barcelona have looked ultra-careless in possession of the ball against minor La Liga sides and not been properly punished. If they repeat that against the Italian champions then the bill to pay will be much higher. And across their history in Turin, the Blaugrana have played five times lost three and drawn twice. It's an inauspicious record.
Should Valverde's team come home having tamed Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Miralem Pjanic, Gianluigi Buffon and Co., then I'll salute them for a deeply significant result, because it will seal group victory and indicate they are capable of raising their game from the sluggish, error-prone, vulnerable form that has dogged them for weeks.
However Saturday's visit to the Mestalla presents itself differently. Along with the horrible form of both Madrid and Atletico it is the stellar performances, rejuvenation and record-setting of Los Che, which has distracted attention from the stumbling but successful Liga leaders from Camp Nou.
Look at it like this: While Barcelona slog back and forth from Turin and risk elongating their currently inconvenient injury list, Valencia will be recuperating from their 2-0 win at Espanyol, ramping up treatment on Simone Zaza's troublesome meniscus problem and honing sharpness while fine-touching strategy. And, if you want the truth, pawing the ground to get at Barca.
Four years ago, when Madrid and Barcelona were last in such lackluster form, Atleti won the title. At this same stage Diego Simeone's men were just a point behind leaders Barca -- Valencia are currently four off -- but their goals scored and conceded were nearly identical.
Should Valencia win on Saturday, something the rest of Spain is hoping they do, they'll have almost the same launch pad as did Atleti before they went on to become champions. Can they win their first title since 2004, when Rafa Benitez was in charge? If Barca don't up their game soon then the answer must be... possibly.
But, for the moment, here are five things you might not know about their remarkable revival.
1. It nearly didn't happen this way
Valencia's former director of football Jose Ramon Alexanco, who lifted the European Cup as Barca captain in 1992 at Wembley, had current Betis coach Quique Setien all set to take over at Mestalla in May -- to the point that he was contacting local schools regarding his children's education -- only for new director general Mateo Alemany to overrule at the last minute and sign Marcelino instead.
2. Marcelino is coach and manager
The Asturian, sacked by neighbouring Villarreal in August 2016, became the sixth manager of the Peter Lim regime after Nuno Espírito Santo, Gary Neville, Pako Ayestaran, Cesare Prandelli and Voro. But there's a significant difference between him and the rest: Marcelino insisted that he should have personal authority to choose not just the type of footballer needed to improve the first-team squad, but the specific player. The signings of Goncalo Guedes, Andreas Pereira, Jeison Murillo, Neto, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Gabriel can all be laid at his door.
3. Valencia will fight to keep their stars
If you read stories about Manchester United wanting exceptional attacking midfielder Carlos Soler then be clear that they are just one club in a line of Europe's elite, who are asking Valencia to name their price. The fact is that only the buyout clause of €60 million would buy the 20-year-old because the club is determined to use his talent to vault them into the high-earners of the Champions League. Meanwhile, the young tyro has said: "I've got a contract until 2021 and I see myself here for many more years."
4. Marcelino's arrival meant a key player stayed
That Dani Parejo is captain and playing the best football of his career is, in large part, thanks to Marcelino. Parejo's time at the Mestalla has been full of controversy and disappointment and, last spring, he'd had enough, until just one training session under the new jefe made the midfielder change his view.
"I've worked under a lot of coaches in my career and you get to recognise the really talented ones quickly," said Parejo. "That first day training under Marcelino I said to myself: 'This guy really knows his football.' It was the way he talked to us, the fact that everything we did had both a practical purpose and a tactical objective. It meant that we had to be totally focused. As a coach, Marcelino insists on good organisation"
5. The great Zaza risk
Just like Barcelona's Luis Suarez, Zaza is suffering from a meniscus problem which, if keyhole surgery is ignored, can be a lottery. According to Marcelino, the Italian striker could sail on, oblivious to the damage, or the problem could exacerbate and require surgery. Zaza averages a goal every 93 minutes this season; any significant layoff would present a significant obstacle to Valencia's title challenge.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.