Barca came into Saturday’s game with 11 straight wins in all competitions, with the chance to go top of La Liga for the first time since November, and with some pundits praising a newfound single-mindedness and mental strength in the team.
But, just seven minutes in, Malaga’s Juanmi pounced on an error from home right-back Dani Alves to put his side ahead. And despite dominating possession and territory from then on, Barca never really looked likely to get back in the game.
Javi Gracia’s superbly organised side had also frustrated Lionel Messi and company when drawing 0-0 in September’s reverse fixture.
This was not just a ‘park the bus’ performance, however, as the visitors were a regular threat on the break. At the other end, a late Luis Suarez volley saved by Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni was quite incredibly Barca’s only shot on target of the entire second half.
Luis Enrique’s team lost both its shape and composure as the minutes ticked away, not helped by three quick substitutes (but not veteran playmaker Xavi Hernandez) and regular changes in formation. Growing frustration led to three bookings in the last 16 minutes, including left-back Jordi Alba, who was lucky not to be sent off for kicking the visitors’ substitute Juanpi on the ground.
The completely tactically out-thought Barca coach pretty much admitted afterwards his side had been unable to deal with things not going the way they wanted.
“Other times we have hit back quickly, but we found it difficult to make chances,” he said.
“There was disorganisation. Order is basic to win games. We spoke about balance during half-time. With 20 minutes left, it seemed time was almost up and we had to launch bombs forward.”
While there were some whistles at the Camp Nou at full-time, local reporters mostly agreed the poor performance was down to distraction. ‘Lethal Siesta’ said Mundo Deportivo’s cover on Sunday morning. Inside, the Catalan paper’s editor Santi Nolla claimed the game “gave the sensation the team was thinking more about Manchester than Malaga”.
Maybe so, but this was not an isolated incident. Barca having now only won two of the last 19 La Liga matches at Camp Nou when they have trailed 0-1 at half-time. This suggests recently arrived team psychologist Joaquin Valdes has not yet removed the mental block the team can suffer from when they go behind.
Asked would the damage done have an effect in Tuesday’s game in Manchester, Luis Enrique suggested he was not really sure.
“Time will tell,” he said, “When defeats happen, they are painful, and it’s difficult to overcome them. We’ve a spectacular challenge in three days time and we must try and bounce back.”
Most worryingly for Barca fans was an anaemic performance from Messi, who had zero shots on target during the entire 90 minutes. The Argentinian suggested last Thursday that the team’s recent upsurge in form, and ability to come from behind in games, had been down to a change in dressing- room attitude.
Luis Enrique more or less knocked back idea when talking on Friday, arguing defensively that the team had been working the same all season. It seemed a possible breach in the peace which had reigned between the pair since early-January’s falling out.
Neither had a good afternoon on Saturday.
Manchester City kicked off minutes after the final whistle at the Camp Nou, and within 90 seconds Sergio Aguero had converted a penalty to send them on the way to a super-comfortable 5-0 win at home to Newcastle. A further reminder that Barca’s tetchy coach, and stubborn superstar, must be back on the same page come Tuesday night.