While the soap opera at Real Madrid plays itself out to a depressing and inevitable conclusion with Jose Mourinho doing everything in his power to alienate himself from all of the club’s primary personalities, over at Barcelona there is a much more heart-warming story developing.
And for once, it is a non-football story that everybody who loves the game can cheer. Just weeks after being diagnosed with a relapse of his cancerous tumour, Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova was back in the dug-out and in charge of his side for Sunday’s home clash against local rivals Espanyol and it was brilliant to see the 45 year-old return to the fold after all the trauma he has been through.
Football was put into perspective when news of Vilanova’s illness broke in December – how Barcelona were performing was irrelevant to everybody at the club – but now he is back and apparently recovering well, we might as well wax lyrical about the Catalan giants once more.
Vilanova watched his players put in an imperious performance against Espanyol. Four goals to the good within half an hour, Barcelona could have racked up a cricket score if they had the inclination, but even though they declared at four it was still a stunning display from a team who look like they have got even better than they were under Pep Guardiola.
That might be hard to imagine, but just look at the statistics: 17 wins and a draw from 18 La Liga matches, with a total of 61 goals scored already, is absolutely phenomenal and Vilanova has just picked up the baton from his illustrious predecessor to make what could have been a difficult handover about as seamless as possible.
A mammoth 16 points ahead of Real Madrid in La Liga and on the back of Lionel Messi claiming the Ballon d’Or for the fourth time in a row, things are great at the Camp Nou ahead of the formality that is the second leg of their Copa Del Rey last-16 tie with Cordoba of the Segunda Division.
Barca already lead 2-0 after a routine victory at the Nuevo Archangel before Christmas and this return leg is just a case of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
How to get value on the home win is the key – as it often is with Barcelona – as you aren’t going to get rich backing them to win at 9/100 and you certainly aren’t going to get rich by backing Cordoba at 22/1. The draw is 33/4, but again, that isn’t happening.
Twelfth in the second tier, Cordoba are every inch the mid-table side and the question here is how hungry Barcelona will be for goals. The way they stopped at four on Sunday makes me think that whoever takes to the pitch won’t go for the throat and that makes the 2/1 that Barca win 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0 worth a play.
Vilanova’s side have only – and I use ‘only’ in the loosest possible way here – scored more than three goals in four of their 15 home games in all competitions this season and in a similar situation in the last round against Alaves, Barca won 3-1 after establishing an unassailable 3-0 lead away from home.
Of course, scoring two and three is a regular occurrence and even a much-changed Barca side can put goals past anyone, let alone lower-league teams.
But with question marks over their desire to go and score a bagful and with some of their star players surely set to miss out, I would rather be against the landslide win (as possible as that is) and have a go on that 2/1 that they keep a clean sheet and score no more than three times.