Barcelona may remain in the driving seat to retain their La Liga title and can still complete a domestic double with victory in the Copa del Rey, but there can be no denying that all is not right at the Nou Camp.
Just under a month ago, on March 16, Luis Enrique’s side sealed their place in the Champions League quarter-final draw with victory over Arsenal, capping another fine week for the Catalan giants in which they had preserved their eight-point cushion at the top of La Liga. But it has been quite a dip from that point on.
A draw against Villarreal followed by losses to Real Madrid and Real Sociedad reduced the gap to just 3 and 4 points with the likes of Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. Meanwhile a 2-1 win at the Camp Nou followed by a 2-0 defeat to Atléti saw the Catalans crash out of the UEFA Champions League thereby crashing all hopes of the treble many people were expecting from this magnificent team.
No team has been able to win back to back Champions League in its current format and Barça too suffered from the same misfortune. But what exactly went wrong? How could a team which at one point was cruising and literally destroying all those who crossed their path go into such a spectacular decline?
Pundits have been scratching their heads trying to find out the reason for the sudden colossal loss in form. Reports however have emerged of Lionel Messi suffering from a muscle injury from a couple of weeks and visits to his nutritionist in Italy seems to back up the claim.
And not only Messi, even Gerard Pique was rumoured to be not fully fit ahead of the match. Add to that most of the team’s defenders like Jeremy Mathieu, Adriano, Aleix Vidal and Thomas Vermaelen are not fit either. This has caused a huge headache at this part of the campaign.
After nearly a fully fit squad at his disposal for the entirety of the season, fatigue seems to have set in. And there is nobody to blame really even if Luis Enrique humbly put himself at fault for the recent reverses. Barça has played 10 more matches than Real Madrid this season and 9 more games than Bayern Munich. Trips to Japan for the Club World Cup and the recent CONMEBOL FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
A recent change in the playing style reveals a pattern in which Messi has played exclusively from deeper positions thereby reducing his goal scoring chance which may have led to his worst gaol drought in the last 6 years. With a top notch striker in Luis Suárez there is no reason to play a 4-4-2 and instead switch back to the 4-3-3, the formation Johan Cruyff so favoured.
And indeed, Barca’s downfall started at the same time the shift in the playing style occurred. That has to be rectified soon. One cannot just have Messi in the team and limit his role to the centre of the park. Having him on the wings will definitely stretch out defenders and open up spaces for Suárez and Neymar to utilize.
“You never have a perfect season, teams always have a little dip and this is our one at the moment,” Pique told reporters after the match. “We just want it to be as short as possible because we have La Liga and Copa del Rey coming up.
“I don’t think any of us were really at our best out there today. We tried to create chances but we weren’t able to get anything going. It wasn’t to be.”
“I think the team aren’t in the best form of the season, but we have to pick ourselves up,” Pique said. “We all try to do our best in every game. We have to win the two competitions we are still involved in.”
Veteran midfielder Iniesta, meanwhile, said the Champions League exit left the players questioning themselves.
“Difficult times like this always generate doubts but we have to turn the page and focus on what we have left,” he said after the Catalan side missed out on the Champions League semi finals for just the third time in 11 years.
The 31-year-old added: “We’re not in very positive form. We have to find strength from somewhere because what we still have to play for is very nice too.”
With Barca needing a goal to send it to extra time, they were denied a late penalty after a Gabi handball was judged to have been outside the area.
Iniesta, however, said the play was no excuse for losing. “It’s not a question of whether the referee was right or wrong. That would solve nothing,” he said. “It is difficult to take in because we’re out of such a nice tournament.”
The club turned the page on the loss on Thursday morning, with training photos stressing preparation for Sunday’s match against Valencia.
“We are not going to feel sorry for ourselves. It’s happened and now we have to look ahead. We have to lift ourselves up, focus hard on the league and get ready for the cup final,” Javier Mascherano said.
Quite true. There is no point in lamenting what has happened already. It’s time to rethink our strategies and formulate some new action plan so that the team can focus on the task at hand — The domestic double.