BARCELONA As Barcelona prepare to chase down La Liga leaders Real Madrid on Sunday the club's directors should be asking themselves why the expansive squad revamp they pursued last summer has failed so miserably in contrast to Real's "less is more" approach.
The Catalans splurged over 120 million euros ($128.5 million)to give coach Luis Enrique the opportunity to rest his most prized assets and avoid the burnout which lead to them almost throwing away the league title last season.
Yet of the six players Barca snapped up, only defender Samuel Umtiti could be classed as a successful signing, while Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes have been derided as expensive flops.
Real, however, bucked their trend of making marquee signings each summer and brought in just two players after winning the Champions League last season, Alvaro Morata returning from Juventus for 30 million euros and Marco Asensio recalled from his loan at Espanyol.
It was the first time in 18 years -- and the first time under spendthrift president Florentino Perez -- that Real had spent less money than they had earned in a summer but the restraint they showed in the market looks to be paying off.
Thanks partly to the performances of their squad players, Real lead Barca by three points and have a game in hand going into Sunday's "Clasico" at the Santiago Bernabeu, where a win would put them within touching distance of a first league title since 2012.
Morata has scored 11 goals in 21 league appearances and only 10 starts, while Asensio has nine goals in 14 starts in all competitions plus two assists, and existing squad players have also played vital roles.
Homegrown winger Lucas Vazquez has proved a more than able deputy for record signing Gareth Bale, whose season has been blighted by injury, while Spain international Isco has scored nine goals in 15 league starts and netted twice in Sunday's 3-2 win at Sporting Gijon.
Zinedine Zidane's side have been frequently criticised in the Spanish press for their unconvincing displays this term, but the overriding quality of their squad has helped them deliver maximum points in difficult games at the likes of Sporting, Leganes and Eibar.
Barca's back-up players have proved much less successful.
Luis Enrique made a raft of changes for the visit of newly promoted Alaves back in September but saw his side suffer a shock 2-1 defeat. His rotations also backfired in a 4-3 loss at Celta Vigo in October, not helped by the absence of talisman Lionel Messi due to injury.
Barca were missing Neymar in their 2-1 defeat at Deportivo La Coruna in March and were without Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets in a 2-0 reverse at Malaga earlier in April.
Barca's biggest challenge has been to take the weight off Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, with their five outfield recruits mustering just seven league goals between them.
Alcacer has been the most productive with four strikes, although his tally pales in comparison with Morata, who was signed for the same price. Andre Gomes, meanwhile, has received the most criticism for many lifeless performances following his 35-million-euro move from Valencia.
"If I don't rotate, the players won't last another two weeks," Luis Enrique said in January as he sought to justify his rotation policy despite the dearth of quality among his second-string players.
And if Barca lose out on the title to Real Madrid, serious questions will be raised about how they failed to strengthen their thin squad despite spending so much money trying to fix it.
(Reporting by Richard Martin,; Editing by Neville Dalton)