By Patrick Hart
The sweetest things in life are sometimes the least expected. FC Barcelona fans will vouch for that. Their team endured the club's worst start to a league season in four decades, only then to throw out the form book and produce a performance some supporters considered their best in five years.
There was more danger of seeing a white flag than the customary Nou Camp parade of white handkerchiefs as Barcelona outclassed Internazionale FC 3-0 in Group A of the UEFA Champions League last Tuesday. So when the Catalan side went one better by scoring four against Real Betis Balompié in the league on Saturday, supporters had reason to believe again.
Certainly, it was hard to credit that just two games earlier, Barça had risked falling into the Primera División's relegation places prior to winning 2-0 at neighbours RCD Espanyol. The alchemist behind the transformation is, of course, former Club Atlético de Madrid, Real Madrid CF and Real Oviedo coach, Radomir Antic. "A new coach always brings new ideas and his way of doing things," Barcelona striker Patrick Kluivert said. "
Antic's ideas have gone down well with the players. He seems to know what we want and gets things done quickly."
Antic agreed to replace the sacked Louis van Gaal before the game against Atlético on 1 February. He took charge after a torrid 3-0 defeat, with Barcelona a club besieged. For all their efforts in the Champions League (where they have won eleven successive ties to date, including qualifiers) they were labouring in the league with both Van Gaal and club president Joan Gaspart, who resigned subsequently, under intense scrutiny from the press.
Barcelona vice-president Enric Lacalle said: "Psychologically, Van Gaal couldn't motivate the players - the relationship had stopped working." The Dutchman was, however, working under unbearable pressure from the Madrid-based media. Antic, by contrast, is media savvy. He has strong links with the capital and worked recently as a pundit on national radio.
Relations with the fans have also improved, and Antic is keen to keep it that way. "The good results have softened the atmosphere between the team and the supporters," he said. "It is our duty to have a relationship with the fans, and to restore their pride. I am privileged to be leading Barcelona. I know what I am representing.
We have to show in our performances that Barcelona have a particular style of play and aren't afraid to play that way."
The Serbian has already lived up to his reputation as an ace strategist to get Barça scoring again. Following his observation that 60 per cent of goals come from set-pieces, midfield player Philip Cocu registered from training-ground routines in the consecutive wins against Espanyol, Inter and Betis.
And if the Blaugrana failed to produce consistently flowing football against Betis, they at least won the game at a canter thanks to a hat-trick from young Javier Saviola, a gifted forward and Van Gaal signing, whom Antic has revived.
Keeping it tight
Barcelona have also tightened up, with captain Carlos Puyol pushed alongside Frank de Boer in a new central defensive pairing as Antic opts for an extra man at the back. "Now we are playing four in defence, it is harder for teams to catch us on the break," Puyol said of the 4-4-2 template. Witness clean sheets in the three games following Antic's debut, a 2-2 draw at Athletic Club Bilbao.
As with a leaky defence, so with Marc Overmars' absence for Wednesday's Champions League match against Internazionale at San Siro. Antic will stay "positive" and "work out a tactical solution". "We are Barcelona and we have to overcome any difficulties we might have. I believe we are on the right track." If he is, he could be at Barcelona for the long haul.
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