Last I wrote this column, any chances of Barcelona not winning the league title were on similar odds with Leicester City winning the Premier League back in August. Bookies had the Foxes at about 5000/1 in case you’re curious. But after trips to Dallas, Tampa Bay, and Minneapolis for work related and personal ventures, I return to a radically altered La Liga landscape, far different from the one I remember dropping my pen at. The 1-2 loss Barcelona forked over to a Valencia team amidst a strange season meant many things on Sunday evening. First and foremost it means there are no more points between Barcelona’s closest pursuers, Atlético de Madrid, at the top of the table as the two clubs draw even at 76 points apiece (Barcelona maintains a head-to-head advantage). And also that Real Madrid, a club in revival, is just a single point behind. The respective eight-point and twelve-point gaps from four weeks ago have “up and vanished like a fart in the wind,” to barrow a line from The Shawshank Redemption.
For either Atleti or Real to win the title would truly be a jailbreak, Barcelona playing the guard on duty that fell asleep. This slump, run of bad form, jinx, crisis (whatever you’d like to label it) is the first time Barcelona have lost three La Liga matches on the bounce since January 2003, the pre-Ronaldinho era. Directly correlating, until Messi managed to score in vain against Valencia in the comeback that fell short at the Nou Camp, he was enduring his longest goal drought since 2008!
But what Barcelona need to get a firm grasp on in order to maintain the composure necessary to finish the job is their psyche, a branch of their existence that has perhaps taken the most damaging blows in recent weeks. The cracks in the cool exterior are starting to visibly form. A fitting example is Neymar’s meltdown following the Valencia defeat. Video evidence has concluded the Brazilian slapped celebrating Valencia players on the back of the head following the final whistle before throwing a water bottle at Antonio Barragán, Valencia right back, in the tunnel. Memories of the Copa América match between Brazil and Colombia resurface. This past summer after the match between the two ended, Neymar again succumbed to a similar fit of emotions, smashing a ball at Colombia’s Pablo Armero, attempting to headbutt Jeison Murillo, and waiting around in the tunnel for the referee to accuse him of trying to gain fame in Neymar’s own expense. The Brazilian received a ban for his actions over the summer but neither incident in the Valencia case was recorded in the referee’s match report. Neymar doesn’t appear to be the best loser, but to be fair this season he’s rarely had to. Nevertheless, it’s an indicator that Barcelona players are feeling the heat. So we’re taking a look back at the events that have birthed telling uncertainty in their minds.
To point out the obvious, the club’s historic 39-game unbeaten run was snapped in unlikely fashion against Real Madrid, the inferior rival that Barca had humiliated 0-4 at the Bernabéu back in November. The fashion in which this latest Clásico loss happened, at one point a goal and a man up, may have been the catalyst that set in motion the recent series of misfortunes. But some may argue that occurred the match day before at Villarreal, and with good reason. After Barca went up two goals from Ivan Rakitić and Neymar, Villarreal was able to match the speed of Barcelona’s cruise control and salvage a point from the match. Following the Real hiccup Luis Enrique’s team rebounded to win at home in the first leg of their quarterfinal Champions League affair with Atlético Madrid, but only after being pegged back an away goal by Fernando Torres, who was promptly sent off shortly after scoring. Maybe Luis Suárez should have joined him, however. Atleti’s Juanfran, upon clearing a ball from danger, was savagely kicked out at by Suárez in the first half. Had any of five match officials seen the event, the Uruguayan might not have been around to score the two he did in the second half – 2-1. Yet again, it was apparent that frustration was seeping in. As the story goes the second leg finished 2-0 to the home side, Atleti, sending them through to the semis, killing Barcelona’s dream of being the first team to win the Champions League in successive seasons, and rendering another treble an impossibility. Now it would have been one thing if they’d been knocked out Bayern Munich, or someone like Manchester City. That would have been a disappointing underachievement. But to be knocked out by Atlético de Madrid, the team chomping ever closer to Barcelona’s heels in La Liga - the team that every week Barca look back over their shoulders they can see their red and white stripes are closer and closer - is a psychological paranoia of a totally new matter.
Before the Champions League quarterfinal draw Luis Enrique was asked who he would prefer not to play. “Barca,” he answered. “Only Barca can beat Barca.” Well that’s proving to be the case. That sense of confidence, over a month old now, has expired and quick. On Wednesday Luis Enrique takes his show on the road to fifth place Deportivo La Coruña, a team the Barcelona of February would strut right over. But it’s also a team that came to the Nou Camp and managed a 2-2 draw in the first half of the season. That’s just one more flicker of doubt to overcome in Galicia.
All signs point to a sense of complacency in the Catalans that has now gotten so far out of hand the slack is too much to reel in. We’re at the stage now in terms of La Liga points that parallels with the Villarreal match mentioned above – drawn back level. But if things don’t improve, a disastrous parallel might be drawn with the match that followed, El Clásico. Luis Enrique confidently remarked that the title is still in their own hands, but that’s the thing that has fans worried the most.