There's an odd, unjustified feeling of contentment among FC Barcelona fans after the 2-2 tie with Real Madrid in Sunday's El Clasico at Camp Nou, which keeps Barça 8 points ahead of their eternal rivals in La Liga. Eight points may seem a lot, but 11 would have been much better because the season is still in its infancy and no lead is safe enough against an opponent of Madrid's caliber. Reading media reports after the game you feel that momentum has already switched in Real's favor. One year ago everyone was in Barça's bandwagon, now all seem to have jumped in Real's.
Everybody agrees it was a great game and the result should please both sides. But where others see one point won I see two points lost, the firsts of this campaign in seven games, even if Tito Villanueva had to start with an unusual pair of central defenders, Mascherano-Adriano, against a formidable offense featuring Ronaldo, Benzema, Ozil and Di Maria. The new coach is moving players around to find the best solutions for a defensive line where regulars Puyol, Pique and Abidal are injured or coming back from illness. The real trouble for Barça is that the player who should be one of the pillars of this defense, right back Dani Alves, has become a serious liability.
The good news is that Alves suffered a hamstring injury against Real and will be out three weeks. The bad news is that the injury didn't happen earlier in the game and came only after Alves, caught dreaming in the middle of the box, allowed Ronaldo to score the game's first goal. Montoya replaced Alves, played very well and almost won the game for Barça, hitting the crossbar with a missile from just outside the box in the last minute. Tito should keep the youngster in the lineup; otherwise he can only hope that Messi can win all the games 3-2 or 5-4, because opposing teams know well where Barça's Achilles heel is.
There are precedents when Alves was exposed and Barça suffered. An out of position Alves was to blame when Chelsea scored the only goal in the first game of the UEFA Champions League semifinal last season. He was responsible for Sevilla's first goal in the league game that Barça won 3-2 coming from behind in a hard-fought game at Sánchez Pizjuán; he scored an own goal and "assisted" on another as Barcelona overcame a 2-1 deficit to top Spartak Moscow 3-2 in a Champions League game at home on September 19. The simple truth is that Alves is having an awful season, and his injury could be a blessing in disguise for the coach, for the team and for the fans.
Alves was a highly touted offensive-minded defender when he joined (not cheaply) Barça from Sevilla in 2008, when Pep Guardiola took over as coach. Messi was playing mostly on the right side at the time and he combined often and efficiently with the gregarious Brazilian, who is technically gifted. While Messi's role has evolved and he's drawn more to the center for complex passes with Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta, Alves still plays with the mentality of a right wing who must participate in every attack. When Barça loses the ball he's often caught out of position, in no man's land, and it is mostly on his side that opposing teams counterattack and create scoring opportunities.
There may be an attitude problem too. Barcelona is a special team. When everybody's healthy there are only three players that are guaranteed a starting spot: Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, a genial trio unique in the history of the game. Everybody else must fight to make the team. Because he has always played, Alves thinks his starter place is automatic, and probably felt unappreciated when summer transfer rumors linked him to Paris Saint-German or German outfit Schalke 04.
It did not happen, but now it's time to reevaluate. It's troubling when on a makeshift defense the supposed mainstay is the weakest link. Watching Barça-Real you could feel that Alves feared Ronaldo, did not want to be close to CR7. That created the (false) general perception that Madrid, the more athletic team, is also the better team, though as always Barça had control of the ball. For the good of the club, and to remain in discussion as the best team ever, Barcelona must part ways with Alves. The team needs a real, strong, defensive-minded number 2. There was a time when Alves was regarded as one of the best backs in the world. But watch closely tapes of some major Barça mishaps and you will be tempted to shout "fraud!"As a kid, Vladimir Moraru dreamed to watch Kubala and Evaristo, but never had a chance. Wearing Messi's Barcelona shirt at 66 makes up for everything.