After a record-breaking start to the season Barcelona have suffered a dip in form and face a stern test of their Champions League credentials against AC Milan on Tuesday night as they look to overturn a 2-0 first leg defeat to progress to the quarter-finals.
Barca only dropped two points from their first 19 games in La Liga to open up a sizeable lead at the top of the table but in the last two months chinks have started to show in their armoury, particularly in defence where they hadn’t kept a clean sheet in 13 games in all competitions until Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Deportivo la Coruna.
It is a far cry from Milan’s own form as they notched a 10th league match in a row without defeat as they won 2-0 at Genoa on Friday night.
Much of Barca’s problem has been caused by a failure to pressure with the same intent up the pitch, starting with the forwards, which has allowed the opposition to have more time on the ball and expose their defensive flaws, as was shown clearly in the first leg at the San Siro.
They also looked ragged and without ideas in the King’s Cup defeat by Real Madrid and while it could be argued that it is logical for a team to drop their form at some point during the course of the season, it has coincided with the absence of coach Tito Vilanova, who has been receiving cancer treatment in New York.
Except for one game against Espanyol in early January, it has been assistant coach Jordi Roura who has been leading the team.
Although he is in close contact with Vilanova, it appears as though he lacks the same discipline and strength of character to motivate the players.
However, he seems sure about how his team need to tackle Milan.
“It is an important game and the one that we have been focusing on. We are clear about how we are going to approach it,” he said after the Deportivo game.
“We know how Milan are going to play and how we will do ourselves. I don’t think there is a problem psychologically and we are all very much up for Tuesday’s game.”
Roura rested a number of players against Depor who will start against Milan, including Lionel Messi, and again Barca lacked their typical slick passing, committing too many errors and needing Messi to come on and score the second to secure the win.
“We need to do better in front of goal but we did have intensity. At 1-0 anything can happen but we are happy with the result and the league is key for us,” added Roura.
“Each competition is different and you have to appreciate that when we now look at the Champions League, but still it is best to approach it with a win where we worked hard and created chances, while importantly not conceding.
“We have been working on pressuring more and I think we are in good form and in conditions to achieve our aim.
“We will give everything to turn the game around. I’ve seen the players and they will do everything humanly possible.”
Contrastingly Milan are going through their best form of the season and their strikers proved on fire in the win at Genoa.
However neither Mario Balotelli, who has given them greater potency in attack, nor Giampaolo Pazzini will play in Catalonia.
Balotelli is ineligible in Europe having already played for Manchester City while Pazzini is out with a knee injury suffered just before scoring against Genoa.
Even so, the Italians are confident.
“We have belief in ourselves and that we can qualify for the next round. It won’t be an easy game and it is going to be quite defensive but we will also try and play our football as we know that a goal will make it even harder for them,” said midfielder Mathieu Flamini.