Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez have added pace to Barcelona, but at what cost?
Nobody was really sure what was going to happen when Barcelona - fresh from winning last year’s La Liga and Champions League crowns - splashed out €29m (Dh135m) on Arsenal’s Cesc Fábregas and €26m (Dh121m) on Udinese’s Alexis Sánchez last summer.
Pundits and fans alike puzzled over how the expensive new arrivals would fit within coach Josep Guardiola’s well-honed system, and more than a few wondered why the club had not bought a new defender.
It has taken a while to see what the Catalan coach was thinking. The two were troubled by injury in their first months, but have now established themselves as key first team players. Both started and scored in Barca’s 3-1 win at the Bernabéu in December. Fábregas now has 14 goals and five assists in his first 18 games, while Alexis is not doing too badly either with seven goals and two assists in just 15 appearances (four as a substitute).
The fast-improving Chilean was Barca’s most productive attacker during Sunday evening’s uneven 4-2 win over Betis, laying on a goal for Lionel Messi in the first-half and then scoring the crucial third himself.
The most immediate value of the two new men is the extra pace and 'verticality' they bring. This has made Barcea less predictable and even more dangerous up front. However, it has also required some tactical tinkering further back in the side, with Guardiola often choosing a three man defence when both Fábregas and Alexis are in the side.
The flipside of these tweaks is that, with Barca’s play less structured, it is more difficult for their players to work the intricate triangles and give-and-goes which have bamboozled so many opposition midfielders and defenders in recent seasons. Xavi Hernández now has to take into account the slight but important difference in the movement and positioning of his new team-mates.
The team has also become more stretched and less defensively solid. In their two league games since the winter break, Barca have been able to exert their usual control over possession and the tempo of games. Espanyol stayed in the game long enough to grab a late equaliser and Betis scored the first two opposition goals at the Nou Camp this season.
It was interesting to note Guardiola withdrawing Fábregas for the more measured Thiago Alcántara at 3-2 in that game.
The challenge for Madrid is to cope defensively with the different problems posed by this season’s Barca, while taking advantage of the slight weaknesses which have been shown.
On paper, Madrid should benefit from the slight change to their rival’s style. Defenders like Sergio Ramos and Pepe are more comfortable when the battles are more physical than mental and attackers like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín have the athleticism and pace to push through any gaps which appear in an over-stretched Barca side.
Sport360° Verdict - Real Madrid v Barcelona, Copa Del Rey, quarter-final, 1st leg
Neither team has yet to hit top form since their return from Spanish football’s winter break, and depleted squads and a heavy fixture list have brought defensive worries for both coaches. It would not be a surprise to see Mourinho’s men take advantage of Barca’s currently leaky back-line, except perhaps through set-pieces where Sergio Ramos will be a danger.
Barca however retain the psychological upper hand and over 90 minutes we say Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and company will once again prove just too good. Expect goals and Barca to steal it 3-2.