In the aftermath of Pep Guardiola's departure at the end of last season having failed to win the Spanish title for the first time in his four-year managerial reign, there were plenty who believed the only way was down for Barca; that this incredible side had peaked and that Real Madrid now had their number.
For the dissenting voices to that theory though, there was one key reason why the Catalans could return to near super-human levels of perfection this season. Injury had robbed them of their two principal reserve suppliers of goals behind the insatiable Lionel Messi. David Villa and Pedro were to return from the injuries that blighted their participation for large spells of the previous campaign, and with all three reunited they could match the 92 goals they managed between them in the Champions League and La Liga double winning season of 2010/11.
However, despite a near flawless start to the campaign that has the Catalans nine points clear of Atletico Madrid in the league and safely through to the last-16 of both the Champions League and Copa del Rey, the return of Villa and Pedro hasn’t been quite as profitable as they might have hoped. Messi has continued to carry the goalscoring burden and taken his own personal figures to levels never seen before, and only spoken of as he neared Gerd Muller’s 40-year-old record for goals in a calendar year.
The Argentine has contributed nearly 50% of Barca’s 54 league goals, but instead their strength has been that goals have come from every position - no more so than full-back.
Behind the World Player of the Year in Barca’s scoring charts there are the familiar names of Villa and Cesc Fabregas, but also a surprising one in the form of Adriano. There are not many who can claim to be more deadly than Messi but the Brazilian may be the closest there is given that his spectacular fifth goal of the campaign against Atleti on Sunday night came via only his 11th shot of the season, a ridiculous conversion rate of 45% when compared to the likes of Messi (30%), Radamel Falcao (31%) or Cristiano Ronaldo (12%).
Adriano is the epitome of what has made this Barcelona side so great over the past few years and particularly since Tito Vilanova took the reins in the summer. A surprise signing when he joined for nearly €10m in 2010, he had to be content with being a bit-part player in his first two years in the Catalan capital, but due to his versatility and great form has become a regular fixture so far this campaign and has even usurped Dani Alves as the first choice right-back in recent weeks – something that would have been unthinkable in previous seasons.
Indeed, only now is the 28-year-old getting a run at his traditionally most comfortable position on the right side of the defence, having started four times each at left-back and even at centre-back as Vilanova searched for solutions to a defensive crisis early in the campaign.
The former Sevilla man’s ability to play in various positions comes from how naturally gifted he is off either foot. Two of his goals this season have been wonder strikes, but it is telling that the one that decided Barca’s clash with Valencia early in the season came with his right foot, whereas the one that launched the fightback against Atleti this weekend was on his left side.
Moreover, his goals have tended to be important ones, not mere statistics as they often can be once Barca have the game well and truly sewn up. More than against any other team, the first goal in games involving this Barca side is so crucial. Once they have it, it is almost impossible to come back. As you chase and become desperate, they circulate the ball and sooner or later more gaps and goalscoring opportunities appear.
Of Adriano’s five goals, three have been the opener, whilst his equaliser against Atleti completely swung the momentum after what had been a perfect first 36 minutes for Diego Simeone’s men.
Thereafter it was a Barca masterclass as they tore the team that is currently their closest title rivals apart, before eventually running out 4-1 winners. Afterwards Simeone claimed that La Liga was “a boring league”, one in which Barcelona were simply in a different class. That they are so is not just down to Messi, but all the component parts of a winning machine, one of which Adriano is now very much part of.