Just one month ago Barcelona had just progressed to the Champions league quarter-finals, easing past Arsenal 5-1 on aggregate, had advanced to the Copa del Ray final and looked set to win La Liga at a canter, sitting top 9 points clear of 2nd place Atletico Madrid. However, their dreams of a treble now lie in ruins after being knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid and losing three consecutive league games for the first time in 13 years. Their lead at the top of the table is now gone and they only sit top courtesy of their superior head to head with Atletico. There is no doubt about it, what looked like a dull climax to the La Liga season has just got a whole lot more interesting.
What has actually happened?
Three weeks ago, Barcelona sat top of the table on 76 points heading into El Clasico. In that game, Zinedine Zidane with the inclusion of Casemiro masterminded a brilliant plan to shut out Barcelona’s lethal front-line. Even with ten men Zidane’s side were able to snatch a 2-1 victory to avenge their 4-0 thumping at the Bernabeu earlier in the season. The obvious disappointment of losing one of the world’s biggest games was there for Barcelona but nobody at the Camp Nou was panicking just yet. That feeling didn’t last long as alongside their Champions League exit they lost their next two league games as well, 1-0 away to Real Sociedad and 2-1 at home to a resurgent Valencia under Pako Ayestarán.
At the same time, Atletico Madrid who sat on just 67 points won their next three against Granada, Espanyol, and Real Betis, scoring 11 and conceding two in the process, to wipe out Barcelona’s nine-point lead.
As if that wasn’t bad enough for Barcelona, the seemingly dead and buried Real Madrid rallied and after their Clasico win went on to record 4-0 and 5-1 victories over Eibar and Getafe respectively. All of this meaning they sit just one point off the leaders on 75 points and ready to pounce in order to win only their second title in nine years.
What’s gone wrong at Barcelona?
Despite reactions of the media and the club’s own fans Luis Enrique is refusing to panic. After the latest loss to Valencia he blamed the club’s downturn on bad luck, he told the media “we only lacked the necessary fortune to win the game.” Certainly a case can be made for this as Diego Alves made some stunning saves for Valencia and their opener was a freak deflection against Rakitic. They also should have been ahead early in the Clasico but Suarez miskicked in front of an open goal and try as they might they just couldn’t make their early dominance count. Although, simply blaming luck is a cop out and it appears there is a much deeper reason for the club’s downturn.
In the past month Luis Enrique has failed to get the best out of the club’s three main assets, undoubtedly Messi, Neymar, and Suarez. Between them, they scored 122 goals last season and have largely continued that form this season, in March they scored 13 goals between them in 5 games but in April this figure is down to just four. This seemingly exposes a major weakness in Barcelona’s squad, they have shown a serious lack of strength in depth as it appears that when MSN don’t fire, neither do Barcelona. There was no better way to see their lack of depth than in the defeat to Valencia when Enrique decided not to make any substitutions. He clearly doesn’t trust any of Barcelona’s substitutes to turn around the club’s fortunes.
This lack of trust in squad players appears to be causing Enrique serious problems. The most common explanation for the club’s recent poor form is fatigue. Barcelona’s season started earlier than anyone else’s as they had commitments with the European and Spanish Super cups, they have competed in every round of the Copa del Ray and Champions League, had to fly out to Japan in December to play in the Club World Championship, causing yet more fixture pile-up and on top of all of that their team is full of international stars who have often had to make long flights to join up with their national teams during the season. In the same week as the Clasico: Neymar, Messi, Mascherano, Suarez, Dani Alves and Claudio Bravo were all playing World Cup qualifiers in South America. This is a problem that most top teams would expect to face but Barcelona have handled this particularly poorly this season, Enrique’s distrust in members of his squad and his refusal to rest the club’s star players appears to finally be catching up with him.
What can we expect for the rest of the season?
Barcelona will be made to work harder for their title than they were expecting if they do win it and all is not lost just yet but they can no longer afford any more slip-ups. They only have the league to concentrate on for the rest of the season whereas their rivals from Madrid both have Champions League commitments. This should make them more rested and more focused for the remaining five league games. Surprisingly, they still hold the advantage in the title race as it appears that they have the most favourable of the three challenger’s run-ins.
Barcelona remaining fixtures: Deportivo (a), Sporting (h), Real Betis (a), Espanyol (h), Granada (a)
Atletico Madrid remaining fixtures: Bilbao (a), Malaga (h), Rayo Vallecano (h), Levante (a), Celta (h)
Real Madrid remaining fixtures: Villareal (h), Rayo Vallecano (a), Sociedad (a), Valencia (h), Deportivo (a)
Atletico have a very tricky away match against Bilbao and have to end the season against the season’s surprise package, Celta Vigo who currently sit 6th in the table. Real also have it tough, home ties against 4th place Villareal and a resurgent Valencia along with a trip to Real Sociedad (who beat Barcelona at home) could pose them some problems. Then there is Barcelona, on paper, the only difficult match for a team of their calibre is the home tie against local rivals Espanyol. Having watched Barcelona’s performances for most of the season it would be easy to say that they could win all of these games and claim the title but their abject performances in recent weeks have added doubt perhaps even into their minds and they know that one more slip could seal their fate. Diego Simeone’s side are looking particularly strong at the moment but don’t be surprised to see either of the Madrid sides take advantage of the massive lifeline given to them by Barcelona claim the La Liga title come May.