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Football | Spain

Lionel Messi © Reuters Images

Barcelona back in charge



With Barcelona having made a record start to the season and Lionel Messi hitting the most goals in a calendar year it is easy to forget the clouds of uncertainty that hung over the Camp Nou last summer as they sought to topple champions Real Madrid.

It appeared as though Barca had reached the end of an era as Pep Guardiola chose to walk away after being pipped to the title by his nemesis Jose Mourinho whose side notched up a record 100 points and 121 goals in the process.

It had taken Mourinho two seasons but he had finally ended Barcelona's hegemony that had seen them win three consecutive championships and two Champions Leagues since Guardiola returned to the club in the summer of 2008.

During his first year a fear element set in at the Bernabeu as Mourinho desperately sought and failed to find a way to counteract Barca's technically strong passing game but last April Real came out on top 2-1 in a key game to decide the title at the Nou Camp.

Real seemed to be a team on the up as they had consolidated without the need to spend lavishly in the transfer market, but rather they attempted to fine tune the squad with the addition for example of Luka Modric from Tottenham Hotspur to add competition for Mesut Ozil in midfield.

It would be easy to think that Guardiola decided to leave in the face of this and indications that his Barcelona team was on a downward curve.

While Lionel Messi was prolific as ever with a record of 73 goals for the 2011-12 season the club had become more dependent on him and rumours had developed that Guardiola had lost the support of members of the dressing room like Dani Alves, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas who were not happy about sitting on the bench.

In a number of league games they had struggled as the opposition packed the midfield and prevented Barca from playing and although the team did capture the King's Cup against Athletic Bilbao they were also knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea in the semifinals despite dominating in both legs.

The decision to promote Tito Vilanova to the top job was widely supported to ensure a smooth transition but there were plenty of questions over whether Guardiola's reserved assistant had the charisma for the role.

Fears were raised as Real came out on top in the domestic Super Cup, the season's curtain raiser between the league and cup winners, but since then Barcelona's form has been relentless.

Despite a catalogue of injuries especially in defence, the Catalans made a record start to the league season as they only dropped points in a 2-2 draw with Real and the main reason for the prolific form has been the displays of Messi.

Having swept aside Gerd Muller's record of goals in a season he also bettered his 85 goals in a calendar year for Bayern Munich and Germany set in 1972.

At the same time Real seemed to suffer a hangover from their league victory and there was a general mood of overconfidence.

They picked up just one point from their first two games against Valencia and Getafe and it was clear from the start that there wasn't the same work-rate and spirit which had typified Madrid the previous season.

Before the end of the summer transfer market Mourinho had already returned to one of his former clubs Chelsea to sign Michael Essien, a player he could rely on.

It was notable in particular how Ronaldo has been unable to inspire his teammates like last season when he was neck and neck with Messi in the scoring charts and in the end finished the league campaign with 46 goals, four less than the Argentinian.

Now going into the Christmas break the question is whether the championship is already over as they trail Barcelona by a mighty 13 points and it is Real Madrid's local rivals Atletico who are in closest pursuit.

The solidity and consistency of Diego Simeone's Atletico side has been a surprise and so far they have been able to break up the domination of the top two in La Liga.

While this has been a breath of fresh air for those complaining at the way the league had become predictable, it perhaps is more an indication of Real Madrid's slump and there is even the provocative suggestion from the Catalan media that it has gone from a two to a one team league now.

However it remains to be seen how Vilanova's renewed battle with cancer will impact on Barcelona's season.

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