Barcelona have their mojo back as they sit one point behind Atletico


Barcelona were 12 points off LaLiga leaders Atletico and mired in institutional chaos, but now have their mojo back and sit just one point behind – Ronald Koeman has reinvigorated Ousmane Dembele… and has Lionel Messi happy again

  • Barcelona closed gap to LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to one point on Monday
  • They were 12 points behind and in seventh place at the start of December 
  • Ronald Koeman has put faith in youngsters and found a system that’s worked 
  • Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi are rejuvenated and leading the charge

Back in December if anyone had told Ronald Koeman that, come April, his team would depend on themselves to win the title, he would have dismissed the notion as lunacy.

As late as the end of January he was saying: ‘Barca right now, we’re in no shape to win much’. Was it reverse psychology? Was he trying to lull the rest of LaLiga into a false sense of security? No, he really believed it, and with good reason.

Barcelona were 12 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid and mired in institutional chaos with no president and no means to go into the January transfer market.

Barcelona closed the gap to LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to just one point on Monday night

Barcelona closed the gap to LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to just one point on Monday night

Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman has turned things around after a disappointing 2020

Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman has turned things around after a disappointing 2020

Sergino Dest has been trusted by Koeman

As has Oscar Mingueza

He has shown belief in young players such as Sergino Dest (left) and Oscar Mingueza (right)

Wind the clock forward three months and on Monday night they closed the gap on Diego Simeone’s side to just one point. Having reduced Atletico’s lead by 11 points they are now in a position where if they win their remaining nine matches nothing can stop them from being crowned champions.

It’s hard to put all this down to a man who didn’t really believe in the turnaround himself but Koeman must take a large chunk of the credit. He believed in young players such as Sergino Dest and Oscar Mingueza and he came up with a system that made them shine.

Barca’s 3-4-3 with Mingueza as one of the back three and Dest and Jordi Alba released as flying wing backs has been a revelation. 

With Frenkie de Jong playing as one of those three defenders Barcelona have had a capacity to bring the ball out from the back not seen since the time when Gerard Pique, or dare we say it Koeman himself, was in his pomp.

Up top the decision to play Dembele through the middle stretching teams with the threat of his pace and two-footed unpredictability has created space for Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann to play just behind him.

Koeman has also known when to change that new system. He loves it but he’s not married to it, and on Monday night when it was not breaking down Valladolid he went back to a 4-3-3. He could well go back to plan A at the weekend because Real Madrid will be a very different proposition to Valladolid.

Having midfielder Frenkie de Jong in defence has enabled Barcelona to play out from the back

Having midfielder Frenkie de Jong in defence has enabled Barcelona to play out from the back

Ousmane Dembele (left) is now playing like the player Barcelona thought they were signing

Ousmane Dembele (left) is now playing like the player Barcelona thought they were signing

Koeman has also had good fortune land in his lap in his first season in charge. Nobody guessed at the start of the campaign that Pedri would end up playing himself into anybody and everybody’s XI of the year.

He looked like a huge talent at the start of the season but someone who would need protecting, just given limited run-outs in attacking midfield when Philippe Coutinho needed a rest. With Coutinho injured Pedri was thrown in at the deep end and he came up to the surface the fully formed complete midfielder aged just 18 – a gift for any coach.

This extraordinary run that Barcelona have been on has also coincided with Dembele staying fit and playing like a man who will only have a year left on his contract at the end of this season.  

On Monday night again he played like the player Barcelona thought they were getting when they signed him to replace Neymar – he drew the albeit harsh red card for Oscar Plano and scored the 90th-minute winner.

Skipper Lionel Messi is happy again and is likely to sign a new contract after much speculation

Skipper Lionel Messi is happy again and is likely to sign a new contract after much speculation

Koeman’s young team have also been able to ride the wave of enthusiasm created by Joan Laporta’s election victory and the idea that it will bring a sustained period of stability and the signing of a new contract by Messi.

The captain could be heard in the tunnel on Monday night warning his team-mates of a difficult second half if they did not lift the pedestrian pace of the first half. 

It was Messi sounding like a skipper – not something that has been heard too many times over the seasons and an incredible change from the start of the season when, after burofaxing his desire to leave the club, he looked at best like a man who would reluctantly see out his last year but not with the captain’s armband.

If Barca win remaining nine matches nothing can stop them from being crowned champions

If Barca win remaining nine matches nothing can stop them from being crowned champions

With Laporta’s winning grin in the director’s box and Messi leading the team on the pitch suddenly Barcelona no longer look rudderless, drifting in the wind. At the start of Monday’s game homage was paid to Messi for breaking the all-time appearances record. No one is missing a trick to keep him happy at the moment.

Even the meeting between Mino Raiola and Jan Laporta have been taken in a positive light. Barcelona were Erling Haaland’s first stop as he toured potential new clubs. And if other big European clubs follow Manchester City’s lead and distance themselves from the circus and the huge fee, Barcelona might even get their man. And if not, then they will carry on regardless. They have their mojo back now and it’s taken them to touching distance of the top of the table.

Real Madrid might swipe it from them on Sunday in the season’s second Clasico but if they don’t it’s hard to see how this won’t end up being their 27th and most unlikeliest of league titles. 

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