MADRID, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Barcelona’s recent strong run is helping the club put a series of off-field problems behind them and suggests they may be starting to move up the gears at exactly the right stage of the season.
Wednesday’s 1-0 King’s Cup quarter-final, first leg win at home to Atletico Madrid was Barca’s fifth victory in a row since they fell 1-0 at Real Sociedad in La Liga on Jan. 4.
In this period, they have beaten Atletico twice, once in the Cup and once in La Liga, something they failed to achieve in six meetings between the two sides in all competitions last term.
They also thrashed Elche 9-0 on aggregate in the Cup and a winning run is the ideal way to counter swirling media speculation about a rift between club talisman Lionel Messi and coach Luis Enrique.
Argentina forward Messi was apparently unhappy with Luis Enrique’s tactics since he took over at the end of last season but denied reports he was seeking an exit from his boyhood club.
Whatever the reality of the situation, Messi has not let it affect his performances on the pitch and his late winner on Wednesday came after he netted a hat-trick at Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga at the weekend.
Even Atletico coach Diego Simeone admitted to being impressed with Barca’s recent form.
“Barcelona have improved a great deal in these last two games,” Simeone told a news conference.
“Above all in putting on the pressure in the opponents’ half,” added the former Argentina captain. “It was their strength that they did not allow us to bring the ball out.”
One reason why Barca may be gaining a head of steam is that Luis Enrique finally appears to have settled on what is known in Spain as a “gala 11” after rotating his regulars in and out of the side.
Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez are fixtures in the forward line, with Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in midfield and fullbacks Dani Alves and Jordi Alba either side of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano in defence.
“It was a very positive result but I never take future results for granted,” Luis Enrique told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s return in Madrid.
“Our opponent still has a lot to say and it should be an attractive game with two teams going for victory.” (Writing by Iain Rogers, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)