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Barcelona 2-4 Girona: Talking points as Girona smash Barca on their way to La Liga top

Every season in La Liga, there appears to be a barrier set before any team that’s not named Real Madrid or Barcelona, or occasionally Atletico Madrid, when it comes to being involved in the race for the title. This term, Girona have shocked the football world by breaking through that barrier, at least of the time being, and having triumphed away to Barcelona on Sunday, they’ve emerged at the top of the table after 16 rounds.

The game

The game took place at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys, Barcelona’s temporary home while the Camp Nou is undergoing reconstruction, and under the lights of the 1992 Olympic venue, the Blaugrana suffered a serious shock, a reality check if you will, at the hands of the team that has proven tough time and again this season.

The stats from this game tell one story; the actual football shown on the pitch – quite another. Barcelona dominated possession with 54% and took a whopping total of 31 shots towards Girona’s goal, with 11 of those going on target. The visitors fired less than half that total, though still respectable, with seven out of 15 heading in the right direction.

Nonetheless, it was Girona who had more control over the proceedings. Michel’s team obviously knew what they were doing from the first whistle. They employed a mixture of an attacking and a defensive approach, measured perfectly in accordance with the challenges Barcelona put in front of them. And their transformations were very quick – not the usual transition system which mostly means relying on counterattacks, but rather going occasionally on a strong offensive and attacking in numbers. It appeared to be producing the desired effect throughout, with Barcelona players frequently confused by the changes in their positions and intensity.

Artem Dovbyk broke the deadlock in the 12th minute, but Barcelona responded rather quickly through a Robert Lewandowski equalizer seven minutes later. But just as it appeared the home side had recovered from the early shock and would go to the break level, Miguel Gutierrez, whose runs down the left had already proven dangerous on more than one occasion, struck another cold blow to the crowd with five minutes of the first half remaining.

This time it was far harder for Xavi Hernandez and his men to find a way back. Their initiative on the ball wavered; even though they still had control of it, a couple of half-chances was all they could create against an opponent as organized and disciplined as Girona. Xavi tried something different by replacing his wingers as Joao Felix and Raphinha made way for Lamine Yamal and Ferran Torres, as well as pulling centre-back Andreas Christensen out and introducing Alejandro Balde instead.

Balde usually plays as a right-back, with strong attacking attributes, but now he surprisingly played directly in Christensen’s place, stepping into the midfield from time to time.

The changes made very little difference. Even with Balde’s help, Ilkay Gundogan, Frenkie De Jong and Pedri, later replaced by Fermin Lopez, simply weren’t winning enough second balls, or duels in general, for their team to get a grip on the game and steer it in the direction they wanted.

Girona still stood fast and held to their own plan, and with 10 minutes left on the clock, they struck again through Valery Fernandez, practically ending the contest. When Ilkay Gundogan suddenly hit back in the 92nd minute, Barcelona were all set for one last attempt at snatching a point, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, it was Girona substitute Christian Stuani who set the final score, in the final minute of stoppage time.

Michel’s Girona

The words ‘tactical masterclass’ are perhaps overused in football analysis, but Michel certainly outsmarted Xavi in every aspect of the game, and his team thoroughly deserved the three points.

Michel’s squad has several players arguably in their best years, but mostly they are a mixture of unproven youth and those over 30. What most of them have in common is that they’re players who weren’t wanted at other clubs.

The same could be said of Michel himself. The 48-year-old was sacked after two years with his boyhood club, Rayo Vallecano, and after 18 months with SD Huesca. He took over at Girona in July 2021, guiding them to La Liga promotion after one season, and a subsequent 10th-place finish in the Spanish top flight.

That’s a fair level of success on its own, but it pales compared to what Michel and his men have done this season. There are no superstars in his team, no Bellingham-type youngsters or Haaland-type goal machines, pacey and tricky wingers like Vinicius Junior or Mohamed Salah. But there is hard work, and the discipline required to follow carefully constructed tactical ideas, arguably beyond anything we’ve been seeing lately, with the possible exception of Unai Emery’s Aston Villa.

A total of 16 league games, equaling to 13 victories, two draws and just the one defeat – to Real Madrid back in September – there is no doubt whatsoever that Girona deserve to be where they are.

Barca’s task

Things cannot be more different for Barcelona. The Catalan giants are now seven points behind neighbours Girona, five behind arch-rivals Real Madrid, and level with third-place Atletico Madrid who have a game in hand.

Xavi certainly has stars under his command. The likes of Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan, players who won it all with their previous clubs, are the kind of quality no manager would say no to having in his team, despite both being well over 30. Raphinha, Felix and Torres are not too far away. Young starlets like  Pedri, Yamal, and Balde, as well as the injured Gavi, represent an excellent basis for a solid future.

But there is no real cohesion in the team, they don’t seem to understand each other well enough to outplay a strong opponent, and unless they get their act together and start looking like proper contenders on every front, their problems will only multiply.

For the time being, Barca’s focus should mostly be on improving their league standings. A place in the knockout stages of the Champions League has been secured, so there’s at least something they can consider done at this point. On the other hand, they cannot afford to drop too many points in the next three league games, against Valencia, Almeria and Las Palmas.

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