Victim of expectations
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
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,
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
Barça took great delight in the collapse of Madrid's
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.