Gavin Hamilton: Barcelona has a case of what used to ail Real Madrid - Sports Illustrated

Victim of expectations

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At the halfway point of the Spanish league, the country's two leading clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, again find themselves caught in the crossfire of an age-old debate: Do you play entertaining soccer, or winning soccer? Rarely do teams do both.

At the start of the season, Barcelona's attacking options looked tantalizing. A prospective forward line would be made up of three players from Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, Lionel Messi and new signee Thierry Henry. Someone, at some stage, would have to be left out.

For coach Frank Rijkaard, it looked like a fantastic problem to be facing. Barça's Famous Four were even dubbed the Fantásticos by an over-excited Catalan press, a clear reference to the defunct Galácticos of Real Madrid.

In contrast, Madrid, despite winning last year's league title on the last day of the season, had it all to prove. A new coach, Bernd Schuster, and a new set of players, not all of whom had been chosen by Schuster, had to be welded together in record time in order to mount a credible challenge. And after the functional football of previous coach Fabio Capello, Schuster was under pressure to reintroduce a new sense of style to Madrid's play. Over to you, Bernd.

So far, so good. A 1-0 win over Barcelona just before Christmas sent Madrid seven points ahead of Barcelona and well on course to retaining its title. Real began the season with some breathtaking attacking play but has since played it safe. After Sunday's 2-0 victory at Levante, Schuster admitted: "I'm happy with the win but not with the way we played."

Schuster knows the champions may not be firing on all cylinders, but it's hard to see them stalling in the second half of the Spanish season. Indeed, their victory in Barcelona will now be seen as the pivotal moment of the season.

In contrast, the defeat at home to Madrid has left Barcelona in deep trouble. Henry, who has struggled with injuries for more than a year, returned to form in last weekend's 4-0 defeat of Murcia. But the Catalans are failing to live up to the preseason hype. Moreover, with Messi out injured, Ronaldinho struggling with his form and Eto'o on African Cup of Nations duty, Rijkaard's days in Barcelona look to be numbered.

Greater gaps than seven points have been overcome in the course of 19 games, but Rijkaard is a dead man walking. He is likely to leave in the summer, along with several key players, notably Deco. In his first season in charge of Barça, Rijkaard brought in Edgar Davids on loan, a move that proved inspired in reviving a club that was further invigorated by the arrival of Ronaldinho. No such signings are anticipated this month, and Rijkaard's regime has the feel of a fading empire.

Barça took great delight in the collapse of Madrid's Galácticos project. But the irony is that the current Barcelona side has more than touch of the Galácticos about them. True, there is more defensive solidity, thanks to the arrival of Yaya Touré, but Rijkaard has played Ronaldinho and Deco even when their form hasn't merited it. Their reputations have preceded them and Rijkaard has indulged them, not challenged them.

Barça could still go on to win the Champions League -- anything is possible in the knockout stages. But so far, its 2007-08 season has proved to be anything other than vintage.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief ofWorld Soccer Magazine. He contributes to on alternate Tuesdays.