Barcelona better get Real Madrid's footsteps out of its head, or they'll only grow louder

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/372884/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> scored again, but <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/barcelona/" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona">Barcelona</a> hasn’t looked great with <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/real-madrid/" data-ylk="slk:Real Madrid">Real Madrid</a> breathing down its neck. (AP)
Lionel Messi scored again, but Barcelona hasn’t looked great with Real Madrid breathing down its neck. (AP)

It’s seemed ordained for awhile, hasn’t it? That Barcelona would cross the finish line in May with an astonishing eighth La Liga title in 11 seasons, with Atletico Madrid’s challenge disintegrating along the way?

Make no mistake, the Catalans are still the team to beat in Spain.

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Make no mistake about this, either: Their eternal rival Real Madrid is breathing fire in pursuit.

Maybe Barcelona hears footsteps. Maybe that’s why the club’s first win of any kind this month wasn’t overly convincing, a 1-0 squeak job against Valladolid, which sits just three points above the relegation zone.

The difference, as has been the case so often in recent weeks, was Lionel Messi. His 43rd-minute penalty gave Barcelona the only goal it would need, but his penalty miss toward the end of the match emblematized Barca’s issues putting the game to bed.

After the game, defender Gerard Pique lamented his side’s current mind state.

“We weren’t the Barcelona that we want to be,” said Pique, who drew the penalty that led to Messi’s goal. “The only good news is the win, getting back to winning ways, but we have to improve. The sensations aren’t good, and we must be better on Tuesday. If not, things won’t go well.”

Tuesday marks Barcelona’s resumption of Champions League play against Lyon. While Barca was spared the marquee opponent other European giants weren’t in the Round of 16, the fixture kicks off a brutal stretch of four tough games in 12 days, including away to Sevilla in La Liga next Saturday and a pair of El Clasicos at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu, first in the Copa del Rey semifinals on Feb. 27 and then in the league on March 2.

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Since being pulverized 5-1 in the first El Clasico of the season last October, Real Madrid fired manager Julen Lopetegui and surged back into trophy contention under replacement Santiago Solari, who has won 19 of his 26 games in charge across all competitions. His side drew Barcelona 1-1 at the Nou Camp in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semis, and while Messi came off the bench that night because he was banged up, it clearly signaled Real Madrid intends to put up a major fight.

So Barcelona will need better form than it’s showed recently. A pair of draws in the league this month sandwiched the stalemate against Real Madrid, and even though manager Ernesto Valverde just received a short contract extension, he must figure out the recipe for righting the ship. And quickly.

Real Madrid is nine points back after losing Sunday, but has already gone from ninth to third in three and a half months. So it’s conceivable the Madridistas could catch Barcelona in the table, especially with a Clasico win.

The Catalans would hear alarms blaring if Real Madrid ran them down. For now, they only hear footsteps.

Joey Gulino is the editor of Yahoo Soccer and moonlights as a writer. Follow him on Twitter at @JGulinoYahoo.

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