Barcelona's Plan B might be in Everton
WHEN Barcelona loses its footing and loses two games in five days, it can feel like losing a friend.
How fickle we are sometimes. What nonsense is said and written about a club that has developed such a philosophy that its team - and the Spanish national team filled with many of its players - has managed to beguile us at the same time it has won world titles.
But with Lionel Messi and a whole host of others sidelined through the inevitable strains of playing too much comes instant recrimination.
Tiki-taka, the style of passing and movement that served them so well, is dead in the eyes of critics. It may be temporarily out of service.
Messi is back in Argentina, recuperating after his recurring hamstring problem proved that he needs time and patience.
Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, those little masters of both passing and chasing interminable successes for club and country, are not getting any younger.
Carles Puyol keeps coming back from brutal injuries, but he is no longer a defender for two games every week. Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, fullbacks who run like wingers, have taken knocks that rule them out for a few games.
So Barça travelled to Ajax Amsterdam and took a beating last week in the Arena. Then they journeyed on to Bilbao and were run down, 1-0, against the Basque side, a team that could prepare all week long for the contest on their own turf on Sunday.
Speaking of turf, how strange it appeared that a player the calibre of Neymar, the Brazilian on Barça's left wing and a poster boy for Nike, should take almost the whole of the first half to change his footwear.
He slipped at crucial moments. He, and others, had clearly misjudged the lush, wet surface of the new San Mames grass.
Where, everyone asked, was Plan B? Barça had none because the Catalan club's coaching, from the kindergarten upward, comes from the same ethos. Pass, pass, pass. Keep the ball, move into space, exhaust the opponent, and strike when they are weary.
Gerardo "Tata" Martino, who came from Argentina last summer to replace an ailing Tito Vilanova as manager, said he was an admirer of Barcelona's style.
He picked it up pretty well, playing 14 league games before he suffered his first defeats. Before those, there had been the worrying scoreless draw at Osasuna - also in Basque territory - when Barça failed to score for the first time in 65 La Liga matches.
But despite Atletico Madrid keeping pace atop the league and despite Real Madrid gathering steam, Barcelona hold the leading position.
Martino's task is to try to make sure that the team does not arrive tired in the spring as they did last season. His search for that Plan B is bedevilled by the fact that, in his first 100 days as coach, he has had just 12 clear days on which to work with the squad.
However, even in the week when Barcelona seemed tired and vulnerable, there is beauty to report. Many miles from home, a Barça boy, Gerard Deulofeu, made an unforgettable starting debut in England on Saturday.
Labelled the new Messi, Deulofeu, 19, has been loaned to Everton for this season and possibly next. His first goal was indeed Messi-esque in terms of his directness with the ball, his body swerve and his impudent finish.
"His quality is sublime," observed Everton's coach, Roberto Martinez. "He can open up spaces, and I want him to continue trying things, to express himself, to dislodge good defences. "
Martinez is a Catalan abroad, guiding a gifted youth through getting experience in another culture. The long-term Plan B, perhaps.