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International Soccer
Barcelona's in a Liga of its own

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Barcelona resumed training Monday following Spain's short winter break, and captain Carles Puyol downplayed the jaw dropping four-month run that capped 2008.

"I think we need to improve, and that's what we'll be trying to do," he said at a press conference.

Really?

Barca hasn't lost a meaningful game since August, compiling a 21-1-3 mark - its only loss was in the last game of the Champions League group stage when it used reserves.

Barcelona earned 41 of a possible 48 points through the first 16 La Liga games, cruised through group play of the Champions League and dismantled nearly all of its opponents along the way.

"I think we need to improve, and that's what we'll be trying to do," Carles Puyol said.
Over the first half of the 2008-09 season, Barcelona was 21-3-2 overall. In the team's last 22 games, it has scored 66 goals - an average of three per match - and at least four on nine occasions.

The victims have included La Liga's struggling Sporting Gijon (6-1) and Almeria (5-0), but also Champions League knockout stage qualifiers Atletico Madrid (6-1) and Sporting Lisbon (5-2), as well as current second-place La Liga club Sevilla (3-0) and fourth-place Valencia (4-0).

Barca disposed of fellow Champions League knockout round qualifiers Real Madrid (2-0) and Villarreal (2-1) - the top two teams in La Liga last season - in its last two games before the break.

Sevilla sits 10 points back at the break, with Atletico Madrid and Valencia 11 behind and Real Madrid and Villarreal 12 points off the pace.

If Puyol's belief is true - and the club does improve - Barcelona is halfway through what promises to be one of the most impressive seasons ever in Europe.

And really, there's no reason why Barcelona can't improve. As scary as that is to the rest of Spain and the Champions League. Barcelona resumes the Champions League on Feb. 24 against Lyon.

Barca is still just 26 games into Pep Guardiola's first season in charge, five new signings (Dani Alves, Alexander Hleb, Gerard Pique, Seydou Keita and Martin Caceres) are still adjusting to life at Camp Nou and Andres Iniesta will return from two months on the sideline when Barca plays Mallorca on Saturday.

"He is a very versatile player, he always wants the ball, he makes a lot of breaks and is always ready for a challenge," Puyol said.

"We always miss Andres Iniesta."

Iniesta, well, he believes his injury has just helped Barcelona develop into a better team.

"I said after I got inured that I had no worries," he said, "because I know we have a great squad."

With Iniesta on the field, it's even better. The Spain international played in just 11 games in the first half, and the attacking midfielder will add another dimension to an already potent offense.

Argentina international Lionel Messi and Cameroon international Samuel Eto'o both have 16 goals in the first half of the year with Messi chipping in nine assists as well. French striker Thierry Henry has eight goals and five assists - although he's unfairly considered a bust in just his second season in Spain.

Spanish midfielder Xavi has five goals and a team-high 11 assists, with the world's most expensive right back Alves - who cost the team $41.3 million on a transfer from Sevilla in the summer - second on the team with six assists.

Puyol and goalie Victor Valdes anchor a defense that has posted seven shutouts in Barcelona's last 10 games.

Anyone in Barcelona missing Ronaldinho? The former two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, who helped Barca win the Champions League a few seasons ago, is basically long forgotten.

Alves (19 games), Hleb (seven games), Pique (15 games) and Keita (10 games) are all paying off already. Give Caceres (three games) a little more time, because he's just 21.

Guardiola and Barcelona's suits pieced together those transfers with the club's impressive group of holdovers, and Spain and Europe are basically at the team's mercy.

"This is the Barca we expected to see." Barcelona director of football Txiki Begiristain said. "It was our dream and for the moment it's coming true."



Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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