Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Real Sociedad on Saturday saw the Catalan side take a huge step towards claiming the La Liga title with a seventh consecutive clean sheet another cause of celebration.
Barca were not nearly as thrilling as their display in Wednesday’s 3-0 Champions League semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich, but goals from Neymar and substitute Pedro Rodriguez sealed the three points.
The result against David Moyes’ side also means Barca became the first team ever in Spanish football to keep 33 clean sheets in a single season.
This record is even more impressive given that their 22 La Liga clean sheets have come with Claudio Bravo in goal, while the 11 in cup competitions have been achieved with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen between the posts.
The blaugrana back-line is also tightening up just as the season reaches its most important point. Their last seven games have brought seven victories with a combined score of 25 and none conceded.
Last summer’s signings have certainly helped shore up a team which had a reputation as a soft touch at the back. The two new goalkeepers have settled in excellently, while midfielder Ivan Rakitic’s athleticism and workrate is also crucial. The first choice back four of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba is the same quartet which critics derided earlier in the campaign. But they are all playing superbly at the moment.
The credit for this turnaround must go to Luis Enrique and his coaching staff — for getting all his big-name players working hard again, while instilling a new organisation and practicality in their play.
“I take it all together,” Enrique said on Saturday when asked about the ‘balance’ in his team’s play. “We made chances and the fact we don’t concede is also extra security. The two go together.
“We are on a good run without conceding a goal, and the players know how important that is. That solidity shows that there is a plan, and the players execute it fantastically well.”
Meanwhile, just as Enrique was speaking in the Camp Nou press room, defensive issues were helping to derail Real Madrid’s title push.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side kicked off against Valencia knowing they needed to win to remain in the race, but were 2-0 down at half-time, after 45 minutes in which they hit the woodwork three times, saw key midfielder Toni Kroos limp off injured, Cristiano Ronaldo have a penalty saved, and the visitors twice capitalise on errors in the Madrid defence.
Los Blancos managed to equalise through a Pepe header from a corner and Isco’s 25 yard strike, but Barca are now four points ahead with just two games left to play [a potential players strike permitting].
Including Tuesday’s 2-1 Champions League semi-final first leg defeat at Juventus, Madrid have conceded twice in four of their last five games. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas was again whistled by Bernabeu fans who held him responsible for Valencia’s first goal from Paco Alcacer, while Ronaldo was the closest player to Javi Fuego as the midfielder was left unmarked at a free-kick for Valencia’s second goal.
“Casillas played a good game,” Ancelotti said afterwards. “The first goal was a very fast cross, and good anticipation from Alcacer. We are paying dearly for small errors at the moment. The only clear mistake was at the dead-ball [for the second goal], when we did not mark up well.”
The Italian coach was sticking up for his players, as he always does. But his team are falling apart just at the season’s key moment, while Barca’s collective team ethic has them set for success.
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