Barca still believe despite collapse
BARCELONA — The image that summed up Barcelona’s night was Gerard Pique crumpling to the Nou Camp turf after firing wide with the goal at his mercy.
Pique stayed there for a good 10 seconds, unable to haul himself back to his feet. With his miss went any chance of rescuing even a point from Barcelona’s must-win game against Valencia on Sunday night, and so too went their three-point advantage at the top of the table.
Their 2-1 defeat was the latest disaster in what has been an appalling month for the European champions. On March 18th they were eight points clear at the top of La Liga, and had just recorded a 5-1 aggregate victory over Arsenal to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
On April 18 they were now ahead of Atletico Madrid on goal difference alone, with Real Madrid — who beat them 2-1 in El Clasico — a further point back. They have lost four of their last six games, winning once and drawing the other.
Worst of all, their reign as European champions is over after Atletico recorded a 3-2 aggregate victory last Wednesday after a pulsating second leg at the Vicente Calderon.
But what has gone wrong? How have a team that looked invincible just a month ago fallen apart?
Here we look at the key factors behind Barcelona’s disastrous slump in form – and see whether they can salvage anything from a season that is in danger of ending with a whimper.
Exhaustion Barcelona have always made a virtue of having a small squad, but this season it seems to have caught up with them – particularly when it comes to their muchlauded MSN strike force.
For club and country Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have played 140 games already this season, including regular trips back to South America and the journey to Japan to play in the Club World Cup.
As a comparison, their Real Madrid counterparts of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale have played just 107 games between them.
To compound matters, Luis Enrique always fields his much-lauded strike-force from the start of games, with Messi making two appearances from the substitute’s bench this season, and Neymar and Suarez not featuring as a substitute at any stage.
Considering that all three played in the 2014 World Cup and last season’s Copa America and it is no surprise that they are showing signs of fatigue, and their form has faded badly as a result.
The trio have scored 112 goals between them this season — but only three of those have come in the last month, when they were needed most.
Coaching style When things go wrong at Barcelona it doesn’t take long for the manager to come under pressure, no matter what he has previously achieved — and Luis Enrique is certainly finding that to be the case.
In his first season in charge he led Barcelona to the treble, but he has been on the defensive in recent weeks with his style of dealing with the press leading to further scrutiny.
Another example came in the press conference after the defeat to Valencia when a journalist named Victor Malo — whose surname means ‘bad’ in Spanish — asked if physical preparation of the players might be to blame for their slump.
Enrique responded by saying: “What was your surname?”
When the journalist replied by saying ‘Malo’, Enrique said: “Correct, next question.”
True, it is hardly in the same category of Nigel Pearson’s “are you an ostrich?” rant from last season, but it does little to ease the pressure on both Enrique and the play- ers when results are poor.
It also invites further scrutiny on some of Enrique’s more questionable decisions, including his choice not to rest more of his key players when the opportunity arose.
Few teams can have such a chasm in quality between their first choice XI and their reserves.
In defence, Jeremy Mathieu and former Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen are a long way from the level of first-choice centrebacks Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
In midfield Arda Turan is taking some time to settle since his move from Atletico Madrid, while there are concerns his bustling, all-action style is ill-suited to Barcelona’s passing game.
And up front, the primary alternative has been Munir El Haddadi, who has impressed while scoring eight goals but is clearly not at the level of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
Indeed, the only position where the backup is on a similar level to the first choice is in goal, where Claudio Bravo plays in La Liga games and Marc-andre ter Stegen gets the nod in Europe.
That undoubtedly contributes to Enrique’s reticence to rest players, and it is no surprise that Barcelona are actively seeking a fourth-choice striker to act as an alternative to their current front three.
The leading favourite at the time of writing is Sevilla forward Kevin Gameiro, and with 24 goals this season he is the kind of high-calibre option they need if this slump is to be avoided in the future.
In Barcelona’s defence, it should be pointed out that they have just endured a particularly horrible series of fixtures.
Their woeful run began with a draw against a Villarreal side who will face Liverpool in the Europa League semi-finals, while the two-legged semi-final against Atletico was a brutal, exhausting affair.
The Classico was draining for Enrique’s team, while what was on paper their easiest game of the lot — away to Real Sociedad —was always likely to be tricky, with Bar- celona having lost on each of their three previous visits to the Basque country.
So it proved, while they were unable to raise themselves for a Valencia team that has enjoyed an upsurge in form since Pako Ayestaran succeeded Gary Neville.
Last night, Barcelona travelled to face a Derportivo side that have won just one of their last 19 games, while their last four La Liga games are all winnable before they face Sevilla in the Copa del Rey Final. So what are the reasons for optimism? Well, despite the events of the last month, Barcelona still have their destiny in their own hands. They have what looks on paper to be the simplest run-in — particularly as title-rivals Real and Atletico may be distracted by their upcoming Champions League semi-finals.
There is also an expectation that Barcelona’s luck must turn. Their fortunes were perhaps best summed up by their struggles against Valencia, when Barcelona found themselves two goals behind at half-time despite their opponents having just one shot on target as Ivan Rakitic’s own-goal was followed by Santi Mina’s fine second.
There is also the feeling that this team is too good not to respond. Enrique is a relatively inexperienced coach, but he is presiding over a team of serial winners who showed no signs of crumpling at this stage last season.
That said, there is genuine doubt over this Barcelona team for the first time since they swept all before them last May.
The smart money is that it is simply a blip — one that has cost them the chance of becoming the first team in the modern era to retain their Champions League crown but should not prevent them from successfully defending their La Liga title.
A month ago, however, you would have been laughed at for suggesting this Barcelona team would win one game in six. Suddenly, the title race in Spain is very much back on. — thetelegraph.com
FC Barcelona have gone on a sudden slump.