Just weeks ago it seemed that Barcelona were set to do something unique — a ‘double treble’ by retaining the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies they won last season.
Now an alarming slump in form, culminating in Wednesday’s limp Champions League exit at Atletico Madrid, has led to fears among blaugrana fans and pundits that their team might be set to implode and end the season trophyless.
Barca went to the Estadio Vicente Calderon this week with a 2-1 advantage from the first leg, but they never hit their stride — with superstar front three Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez kept under wraps by a super-organised Atletico defence.
Luis Enrique’s team had long spells of possession, but without any penetration. Antoine Griezmann’s first half header and late penalty were enough to deservedly send Atletico through to the last four.
A team which went 39 games over six months without any defeat in any competition, has now been eliminated in Europe and picked up just one point from their last three La Liga outings — a 2-2 draw at Villarreal, 1-2 home ‘Clasico’ defeat to Real Madrid and 0-1 loss at Real Sociedad last weekend.
Barca talisman Messi is now up to 452 minutes without a goal or assist.
The Argentine’s malaise has appeared to infect teammates Neymar and Suarez, both so frustrated on Wednesday that their main contribution was getting booked for tangling with opponents.
A team which relied on its superstar front three to make something happen now looks lost when individual inspiration does not work. While the ‘MSN’ were terrorising defences a few months back, Luis Enrique was asked to explain their success and replied: “I just say ‘Abracadabra!’ And then the magic sparks.”
With that spark now snuffed out, respected blaugrana pundit Ramon Besa told the El Larguero radio show on Wednesday night that harsh questions need to be asked of the coach.
“The most frustrating thing for Barca fans and their own players was that we did not see the real Barca today,” Besa said. “We must stop asking what is wrong with Leo Messi and start asking what is wrong with Luis Enrique.”
The Asturian might reply that he lacks options when things start to go wrong. Barca’s squad lacks depth after a 12 month Fifa-imposed transfer ban was followed by signings last summer in Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal who have yet to impress.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu was unable to provide the funds which his coach wanted to add an extra forward last January. More generally speaking, the current Barca side lack an ‘identity’ Meanwhile at Atletico, Simeone is building a team which knows exactly what they are doing and where they want to go.
“This Atletico is an epic Atletico, wherever they reach,” wrote Jose Samano in El Pais on Thursday. “You just have to rewind to see where they were before Simeone stamped himself on them. He is now to this club what Johan Cruyff was for Barca, when he turned around their history.”
With Europe now gone, Barca head back to La Liga still favourites to win the title. They still have a three-point lead over Atletico, with a re-energised Real Madrid a further point back.
They are also still favourites for May 22’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla. Sunday evening brings Valencia to the Camp Nou, where they were beaten 7-0 two months ago. But Los Che look stronger now that Pako Ayestaran has replaced Gary Neville as coach.
“Our objectives are always high,” Luis Enrique said on Wednesday night.
“We’re proud that Barca always aims to win everything. We must accept this result and move on. We have two competitions in front of us now, with great chances to win them. For any other coach in the world, winning those two would be enough.
“But we must improve.”
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