By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
It was an astounding achievement. Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid lost only twice in La Liga last season and claimed an unprecedented 32 victories on their way to winning the Primera Division with a historical high of 100 points. No team had ever reached three figures before in Spain’s domestic competition, but just eight months on, Barcelona seem set not only to beat their rival’s record – they look likely to obliterate it.
Tito Vilanova’s team turned in another professional performance on Sunday, beating Malaga 3-1 at La Rosaleda to open up a healthy 11-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, with Mourinho’s men 18 adrift in third spot after 19 rounds of matches in the Primera Division. At the league’s halfway stage, Barca have won 18, drawn one and lost none. In total, only two of 57 points have been dropped – in the 2-2 draw at home to Madrid back in early October.
With 55 points on the board after 19 games, Barca are well on target to surpass Madrid’s mark from 2011-12, as well as their own best of 99 points under Pep Guardiola in 2009-10. It’s incredibly impressive, particularly as this is Tito’s debut campaign as first-team coach.
Madrid, admittedly, have been below their best. The capital club have never in their entire history trailed Barca by such a wide margin at the league’s mid-point, but the team’s total of 37 points is hardly horrendous, either, while Atletico would be leaders in most of Europe’s major leagues with 44 units from their opening 19 games.
Mourinho seemed sure his side would kick on from last season’s success, but the Portuguese has seen his team toil in 2012-13, blighted by problems on and off the pitch. And following Pep’s parting, the rivalry with Barca has dwindled, along with his team’s intensity. Performances have dropped for the champions in the current campaign, while rivals appear more confident of nullifying what has often been a predictable pattern of play this term from the capital club.
The opposite is true of Barca. Opposing teams seem scared when facing the Catalans and many appear to have lost the game mentally before a ball has even been kicked. Others only spark into life when it is already too late, such as Mallorca and Deportivo La Coruna, both of whom made sterling fightbacks before being outgunned in high-scoring encounters this term. On Sunday night, meanwhile, Malaga gave Tito’s team a good game, but also gifted the first two goals with some dreadful defending. If there is one team which does not need such help, it is Barcelona.
However, much credit must go to Vilanova. The Catalan coach has led his side through a seamless switch after Guardiola stepped down in the summer, negotiated a potentially disastrous defensive crisis earlier in the season, and had his footballers fired-up to prove it is as much about them as it was about Pep. The new man has also smoothed over some dressing-room disharmony from last season, applied a few tactical tweaks and watched Barca blossom beautifully. Evolution, not revolution.
So is Tito’s team stronger than Pep’s?
It’s too early to say. Vilanova’s side came undone in the Spanish Supercopa to Madrid as the season’s first trophy was decided, could only draw with Mourinho’s men in La Liga at Camp Nou and surprisingly lost at Celtic in the Champions League. The rest has been simply superb, contrastingly.
Tough tests await in the Copa del Rey – with a possible semi-final meeting with Madrid – the Champions League and La Liga, too. Time, trophies and how well they can perform in the very biggest games will determine how this Barca bloc can be perceived alongside Guardiola’s great side, but winning La Liga with a record points total would surely be the best possible start. They are only halfway there, but so far, so very good.
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