Barcelona have suffered an alarming fall from grace over recent weeks, with their Champions League over, and their La Liga bid stalling. Derek Bilton looks at where it has all gone wrong.
I’ll not profess to be an expert on all things Spanish. Indeed I once spent a full 15 minutes trying to order a cheese and tomato toastie in Benidorm. And ended up with a bag of Cheetos.
But even I can see that all is not well in Catalonia, where it has been a puzzling season so far for Barcelona.
It began ominously as they put together a club record 39-match unbeaten run and were moving serenely towards a second treble in as many seasons. The front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez were being hailed as the best trident in the history of football. They weren’t just beating teams. They were overwhelming them with a jaw-dropping brand of attacking football.
However in recent weeks the wheels have come off in rather spectacular fashion. As we reach the business end of the season they have picked up just one point from a possible 12 and been unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League by La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid. Atleti are now level on points at the top of the table, while Real Madrid (who were 12 points behind their big rivals at one stage) are just a solitary point behind in third.
So what is bugging Barca, whose 2-1 defeat to Valencia on Sunday was their third in as many matches? It seems pretty obvious that the team are far too heavily reliant on Messi, Neymar and Suarez. If those three don’t click, nobody else is stepping up to the plate to relieve the pressure and help them dig out results.
Against Valencia, Messi scored his 500th career goal but he and his dance partners up top were profligate in front of goal in a game they actually dominated in terms of possession.
There has also been a change in tactics this season. The ‘passing carousel’ approach that once made them the toast of the European game is no more and now the team try to get the ball up to the strikers as quickly as possible. When Messi et al were on form and firing earlier in the campaign that wasn’t a problem but they are starting to get found out by teams now.
Neymar in particular is coming in for all kinds of stick in the Spanish media where questions are being asked of his temperament and decision making in the final third.
Yet the biggest question mark now hovers over boss Luis Enrique, who is under fire for creating a squad that is blatantly lacking in depth. There has been precious little squad rotation and their biggest title rival this season could end up being fatigue.
Sunday’s game was Barca’a 53rd of a gruelling season that saw them travel to Japan in December to win the World Club Cup. The team look exhausted but a lack of quality cover means Enrique has little room for manoeuvre.
Reserve forwards Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Marinez have barely featured, playing just 16 games between them all season for a return of just three goals. It’s unacceptable really that a team with the resources that Barcelona have don’t have star names to summon from the bench and this is the main reason why their preferred front three have been substituted just four times between them all season.
The Blaugrana now have five matches to rescue the league title as well as well as a Copa del Ray final to look forward to. They may yet still pull it out of the fire and despite being on their worst run of form for 13 years could still end up as double winners.
Yet just a few short weeks ago there was serious debate as to whether this was the greatest Barca side of all-time. However a shocking wobble in April seems to have emphatically answered that question once and for all.