Madrid - Barcelona are off to their worst La Liga start
since Lionel Messi's debut season nine years ago.
A 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad was described as a
"miracle" by Barca boss Luis Enrique in what he singled out as the
worst performance in his three seasons in charge.
Barca are already six points adrift of Real Madrid ahead of
their meeting in El Clasico on Saturday.
Here, AFP Sports looks at what has gone wrong so far this
season for the Spanish champions.
- Key injuries hurt
Messi rescued Barca from a fifth consecutive defeat on their
travels to San Sebastian, but Sunday's draw was the first time Barca have
dropped points in the league this season when the Argentine has completed 90
Messi's presence has been sorely missed in defeats to Celta
Vigo and Alaves and draws with Malaga and Atletico Madrid.
However, he is far from the only key man to have sat out
some part of the season so far.
Andres Iniesta has been out for over a month, whilst his
Spanish international teammates Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were also sidelined
for a number of weeks.
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- Busquets isolated
An often underrated pillar of Barca's success in the past
decade, Sergio Busquets is in the midst of his most protracted dip in form
since breaking into the first team under Pep Guardiola in 2008.
It is no coincidence that Busquets's struggles have come for
the first prolonged period in his career without retired legend Xavi or Iniesta
by his side.
His influence in terms of touches and passes completed has
wained since Enrique took charge and favoured a more direct style to feed a
superstar front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar more quickly.
However, without the ball Busquets is now being exposed by
the lack of support around him as Ivan Rakitic has been forced wider on the
right to protect the inexperienced Sergi Roberto, who the departed Dani Alves
- Tough start
Whilst Barca have failed to hit the heights of old, the gap
between them and Madrid can also be explained by the differing challenges they
have faced to date.
The Catalans have already made tricky trips to Sevilla,
Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao, Celta Vigo and, despite their current struggles,
Valencia, as well as Atletico Madrid at home.
Real's 31-game unbeaten run will be put firmly to the test
at the Camp Nou on Saturday, but other challenges await for the European
champions with four away trips in five games just as the Champions League
returns in February.
- Summer signing busts
Barca splurged over 120 million euros ($127 million) in the
summer transfer window in a bid to bolster their squad.
So far to no avail as none of their six recruits have
established themselves in Enrique's preferred starting XI.
Despite beating off Madrid to the signature of Andre Gomes,
the Portuguese Euro 2016 winner has failed to make an impression in Iniesta's
absence, whilst 30 million euro striker Paco Alcacer has yet to score a goal.
- Messi dependent
A year ago whilst Messi was sidelined for two months by knee
ligament damage, Neymar and Suarez not only ensured Barca didn't lose ground in
the title race, but accelerated past Madrid at the top of the table.
Twelve months on and Barca's Messi-dependence has reemerged
with the Argentine scoring 10 of Barca's last 14 goals.
Suarez has scored just once in his last five outings, whilst
Neymar hasn't scored from open play in La Liga since September.For
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