How Barcelona have blown Real Madrid away in La Liga's title race
It wasn't supposed to look like this. Barcelona were supposed to just about keep pace with Real Madrid this year. But they weren't supposed to win La Liga.
That they would be nine points clear in March – and show few signs of slowing down – was unthinkable.
Yet here they are. Barca are far and away the best team in La Liga this year, clearing every hurdle as they sprint towards a first La Liga title in four years.
And matched up against a Madrid side coming off a domestic-European double, with perhaps another Champions League to come, such a successful season is undeniably impressive.
But this hasn't exactly come out of nowhere. Barcelona are not good by chance.
Indeed, they have all the pieces of a league-winning team, with just enough edge to presumably fight off any late charge from Los Blancos.
Victory this weekend, in fact, would effectively signal the end of the title race.
Below, GOAL takes a look at why Barcelona are so far ahead of Madrid with just 13 games to go...
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It makes sense: if your team is not scoring enough goals, you should probably find someone who can score goals.
It's even more helpful when your goalscorer is one of the most prolific strikers in recent memory.
Lewandowski has been everything Barcelona could have hoped for.
Last season, they relied on a mixture of Memphis Depay, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres for attacking production. The result was a team that couldn't find the back of the net consistently enough.
And now, with Lewandowski in the middle, they have a prolific goalscorer for the first time since Luis Suarez left three years ago.
The Poland striker has 15 Liga goals and five assists, and is on track to win the golden boot despite missing a handful of games due to suspension and injuries.
There is perhaps also something to be said for having a perennial winner in your ranks. Lewandowski has won a league title every year since 2015. If anyone knows what it takes to stay in the mix for 38 games, it's him.
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Goals from all over
Lewandowski isn't the only one finding the net.
It's not just the fact that Barcelona are scoring more: it's where the goals are coming from. Thirteen different players have found the net for the Blaugrana this year, the fifth-highest number of goalscorers in the league. Six squad members have also scored more than five goals, while 12 players have multiple assists.
For so long, Barcelona relied on the genius of individuals, turning to Messi, Suarez or Neymar to find the net. And when those three left, albeit at different stages, it didn't look like the club knew where to turn.
This year, though, everyone is getting involved. When Lewandowski was out, Ousmane Dembele stepped up. When Dembele picked up an injury, Raphinha took over. Meanwhile, Gavi and Pedri have supplied a steady trickle of goals themselves.
Those additional goalscorers, that seemingly random production, is what pushes a team to the top. Barcelona, quite simply, have always been able to find the net – regardless of who's on the pitch.
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A nifty midfield
At the start of the season, Frenkie de Jong wasn't supposed to be a Barca player. Sergio Busquets, meanwhile, was too old. Gavi was too hot-headed. And Pedri, although class, was injured too often.
So, Barcelona dipped into the transfer market for some midfield help but while Franck Kessie looked like a shrewd signing, it didn't exactly inspire confidence.
However, Xavi, who knows a thing or two about a balanced midfield, has managed to piece together his unit perfectly.
It all started working in January, when the manager broke out a 4-2-3-1 formation, placing four central-midfielders in a seemingly unbalanced system. But he got his tactics spot on, and seemed to get the most out of his four best options.
And when any of that unit have gone down with injuries, either Kessie or Sergi Roberto have stepped in with relative ease.
It's not yet a flawless formation, but Barcelona have crucial solidity in the centre of the park. It's given them valuable control over their contests, setting up win after win.
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An imperious defence
A cursory glance at Barcelona's back four before the season didn't exactly suggest that Xavi's side would have the best defensive record in Europe.
There were question marks all over, from Ronald Araujo's fitness to Jordi Alba's aging legs. A poor 2021-22 campaign from usual stalwart Marc-Andre ter Stegen also suggested that it could be a rough year.
Instead, Barcelona have pieced together the best domestic defensive season on the continent. The Blaugrana have only let in eight goals in La Liga, almost half of which came in one game against Real Madrid.
Ter Stegen has kept 19 clean sheets in 25 matches, while free-signing Andreas Christensen has been a revelation. It must also be noted that allowing Gerard Pique to walk has buoyed the Blaugrana by subtraction.
But it's not just individual quality that has carried Barca this far.
The Blaugrana have the highest possession stats in the league, and Busquets playing in a deeper role has made them less susceptible to counter-attacks than they were last year.
The more energetic, and younger, Alejandro Balde has also given Barca a defensive lift on the left flank.
Put it all together, and it makes sense that Barca are so solid.
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Xavi's summer transfer window was met with mixed reactions. Lewandowski was certainly regarded as a top signing, while Jules Kounde represented smart centre-back cover.
The other newcomers, such as Marcos Alonso, Kessie and Raphinha, were puzzling. But all three have contributed, filling spots all over the pitch to support the team.
Alonso, naturally a left-wing-back, has deputised in central defence. Kessie, the epitome of versatility at AC Milan, has embraced pushing further up the pitch when needed and was crucial in Barcelona's only goal at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Blaugrana's 1-0 Copa del Rey win.
Raphinha, meanwhile, has adapted to either wing to accommodate for the strengths of those around him.
These are the small moments that tend to add up, players chipping in at the right spots amid injury and tiring legs. And Barca have lived off them this year.
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In November, when Barcelona were bounced from the Champions League group stages, there were some who called for Xavi to be sacked.
It wasn't the first time Xavi's job has been questioned. A year ago, the manager himself admitted that his days at the club could be numbered, and conceded that being at a top club is, indeed, a results-based business.
Since then, Xavi has not merely saved his job; he's asserted himself as one of the most intelligent coaches in La Liga. More than anything, the former Barca midfielder has accepted that his team doesn't always have to dominate.
His side plays without ego, with sufficient talent on the pitch to produce in the big moments, but enough buy-in to ensure that even the biggest of names don't mind being a little more frugal in the right situations.
It's not always classic Barcelona but the manager has figured out a way to get his squad to tick. As Ronald Koeman before him proved, that's not always very easy.
There are certainly weaknesses: Barca's European form has been miserable, and they can occasionally be loose in front of goal.
But the manager appears primed to win La Liga in his first full season in the job. In a results-based business, that's hard to argue with.
A stuttering opponent
For all of Barca's success, it's difficult not to expect more from Madrid. While they lost Casemiro this summer, the addition of Aurelien Tchouameni, as well as the presumptive improvement of Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde and Vinicius Jr, should have been enough to lift Los Blancos through the season.
However, Madrid have failed to raise their game. They have been unlucky with injuries, especially with Karim Benzema missing 10 Liga contests. Such is the quality in their side, though, that bumps and bruises can be worked around.
Ironically, Madrid's campaign is remarkably similar to last year's. They are on pace for 85 points, one less than their total last year, and will win, lose and draw a similar number of contests. Their defensive numbers are nearly identical, and although they will likely score fewer goals, Los Blancos are near-replicating a title-winning campaign.
The difference is, then, that Barcelona have simply improved. Madrid, meanwhile, have stayed the same.
It is by no means a lost season for manager Carlo Ancelotti's side; they seem as strong as ever in the Champions League.
But they have failed to keep pace with their arch-rivals in la Liga, which will likely cost them their Spanish crown.
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Lots of grit
When Xavi took the Barcelona job almost 18 months ago, he promised a return to the traditional ways of the club. He spoke of the Barca DNA, his desire to play attacking football. It was clear that Tiki Taka wasn't on the cards, but his team was still expected to always play on the front foot.
So much for that idea!
Barcelona are very much an attacking team, but they do the gritty stuff incredibly well, too. The Bluagrana have ground out wins that sometimes make for ugly viewing. One-goal victories over Villarreal, Girona, Getafe and Valencia were all hard-earned.
But they were also all done with control. There have certainly been nervy moments; Ter Stegen has been called into action perhaps more than Barca would like.
Yet real panic has never really seemed to set in – even when the Blaugrana appear to be under real pressure. At times, it must be frustrating for fans to watch such tight football. But it's a system that works.
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And a little bit of luck...
All title winners need a bit of fortune. Whether it's the occasional favourable refereeing decision or facing an injury-plagued opponent at the right time, sometimes the stars just have to align.
And Barcelona have enjoyed a few of those moments this year.
There was Stefan Savic getting a silly red card when Atletico appeared to be on their way to netting an equaliser, allowing the Blaugrana to snatch three points.
There was a fortunate VAR overturning of a levelling goal from Athletic Club last weekend.
These are the moments that might be met with the chagrin of rival fans. But they can also be crucial in deciding seasons, particularly for a side playing as confidently and as determinedly as Xavi's Barcelona.