Barca still be­lieve de­spite col­lapse

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

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.

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