The mood inside the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday afternoon was buoyant as the home fans saw their Atletico Madrid side deservedly defeat Athletic Club Bilbao 2-0. It was a result which ensured the gap at the summit of the table to Barcelona stayed at seven points.
Such has been Atletico Madrid’s recent form – four wins in a row and just one league defeat all season – fans of the club sense a title challenge is on.
Such renewed optimism has also been born from recent results and performances of the Catalan giants.
Between December and January, the overcame numerous obstacles and procession to the league title looked certain. They won 2-0 at Villarreal, 3-0 at Real Madrid, 4-2 at Real Sociedad and 5-0 at Real Betis. They also beat Celta Vigo 5-0 and advanced to the Copa del Rey final in which they will attempt to win a historic fourth successive title.
Every silver lining has a cloud
Yet after each leg of their semi-final triumph against Valencia, Barcelona dropped points against sides in the lower half.
First, Gerard Pique’s header rescued a late draw in the Catalan derby at Espanyol before a tactical masterclass from Getafe earned a scoreless draw at the Camp Nou – the first time Barca had failed to score in the league this season. Fatigue appeared to be setting in with form and fitness far from the heights attained just a month earlier.
Lionel Messi has been at the peak of his powers for most of the campaign but performances have dipped in the past month and he is without a goal in his last five appearances – verging on a drought by his own illustrious standards.
Elsewhere, Ousmane Dembele has suffered a fresh injury setback and Philippe Coutinho’s integration into the first-team has not been as smooth as would be ideal from the Blaugrana’s perspective.
The Brazilian cannot return to England for the Champions League tie having previously represented Liverpool in the competition earlier this season but one Brazilian returning to British shores is Paulinho.
The 29-year-old was brought to the Camp Nou in a £35 million deal this summer, raising plenty of eyebrows of both Barcelona fans and interested onlookers.
However, despite failing to settle at Tottenham four years earlier, the box-to-box central midfielder has starred this season under Valverde alongside a resurgence in Ivan Rakitic’s form.
The greatest success of the man in the dugout to date has been his work on Barcelona’s tactical discipline and ensuring they both defend and attack as a unit, and Paulinho has been the fundamental piece of the jigsaw in this regard.
One step backward, one step forward
Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona earned a lot of success but were wildly unbalanced, with their attacking trident of MSN (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) providing decisive moments but often leaving them exposed and without control of games.
The Brazilian’s departure has now made the side more solid and hard to beat but, equally, they lack the explosive moments which engineered their remarkable comeback against Paris Saint-Germain last season.
The concern is, Barcelona’s showings in Europe last season were dreadful – their 4-0 humiliation in Paris was followed up by a 3-0 reverse at Juventus and there are questions if they have significantly improved to the point they can now be considered again among the competition’s favourites.
Messi is capable of magic at any moment but when he does not perform, the side lack creativity and they rely heavily, perhaps excessively so, on Luis Suarez’s goal output.
Chelsea should take heart
Chelsea may have struggled recently but have in the past been masterful at providing a template to combat Barcelona.
If they can play in the direct, counter-attacking style which suits their side - particularly star forward Eden Hazard - they could cause problems for this Barcelona side.
Messi has not scored in eight appearances against Chelsea, his most stubborn opponent.
The English champions can remain hopeful that if they can shut him out twice more, they stand a real chance of progression.
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