End of an era? Barca’s decline looks hard to halt
IT has long been said that football success moves in cycles and Barcelona's era of domination could soon be over judging by the total domination exerted by Real Madrid in their 3-1 success at a stunned Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg on Tuesday.
"Without excuses" was the front-page headline in pro-Barca paper Mundo Deportivo and it was difficult to disagree.
Any team can lose to Real Madrid but the manner of the performance against the 9-2 shots, so quickly on the heels of the 2-0 defeat at Milan, should set off alarm bells for any punter who is looking to back them.
Barca have won five of their last 11 matches. They have not kept a clean sheet since January 10 and have recorded only one shutout against top-flight opposition in 16 contests. That's not a "you score two, we will score three" approach to matches. It's a shambles.
Make no mistake, this is a crisis and there’s no doubt the last week has felt like the end of an era for this squad. Of course it can be difficult to write an obituary for a side who are 12 points clear in La Liga, reached the semi-finals of their domestic cup and are still in with a shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
However, don’t be fooled by that La Liga lead. Real Madrid have hugely underachieved in the mundane matches in Spain yet when it has mattered most they have come out on top.
Jose Mourinho’s men beat Barca in the Spanish Super Cup and they were in cruise control on Tuesday – Xabi Alonso’s symbolic and brilliant tweeted picture of himself with his feet up inside the empty Camp Nou would have cut through a million Catalan hearts. Remember when Alonso was run off his feet inside that very same stadium?
It was November 29 2010: Barcelona 5 Real Madrid 0. That night the Catalan-based Sport’s headline read “5-0. Slap to Mourinho. Thrashing. Humiliation. Leaders.”
It was one of the most brilliant team performances you could wish to see from a side who had already won one Champions League in 2009, would go on to land another in 2011 and were in the middle of a run of ten straight victories by an aggregate score of 43-4.
Pep Guardiola had Barca swarming all over the opposition. They passed at a speed few had seen before and if anyone had the temerity to take their ball off them the forward players would press so hard it would be back in Barcelona’s possession in the blink of an eye.
The teamwork in that four years under Pep Guardiola was unrivalled in Europe. Every player was looking out for their mate; there were no egos (apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic who was quickly bombed out along with Ronaldinho and Deco), just sheer joy at playing for a club they loved under a manager they loved. Pep’s gone and so has the magic.
Lionel Messi remains as sensational as ever in the goalscoring stakes, breaking records on a regular basis but these days stop Messi and you stop Barcelona. Victor Valdes won’t sign a new deal, Dani Alves has been dreadful for months, Gerard Pique is seemingly more interested in his high-profile relationship with Shakira than stopping strikers and the other forwards are low on confidence because they feel worthless with everything centred around Messi.
Alexis and Pedro are half the players they used to be and David Villa, Spain’s greatest ever goalscorer, is being asked to perform a bit-part role while continually denying he has a problem with Messi, who passed once to him during Saturday’s scrappy 2-1 success over Seville.
Xavi is 33 and struggling to have the same influence on matches, while another dressing-room leader, Carles Puyol, will be 35 in April and is sadly playing like it.
Puyol has such a remarkably high-pain threshold that the joke in Spain goes that even when he is dead the shaggy-haired stopper is likely to only be out for three weeks.
However, he was run ragged by Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria on Real Madrid’s lightning counter-attacks and caretaker boss Jordi Roura had no clue how to protect his team.
The complacency which has set in throughout the ranks is frightening and for Barcelona to stand a chance in the Champions League they must be ruthless. Tito Vilanova’s cancer fight is more important than any sporting event but Barca cannot allow themselves to be managed by somebody who remains in New York.
To coin a popular terrace chant, Roura “doesn’t know what he is doing” and nor should he. Roura was a scout for Guardiola before being promoted to a coach in the summer. Now he is running one of the world’s greatest clubs and if Vilanova is unable to continue he needs to be replaced properly, even if only on an interim basis.
But, as Sky pundit John Toshack noted, some players have been taking liberties and that cannot be eradicated with one click of the fingers whoever is the boss. All good things come to an end as Barca are beginning to find out.
Last 11 matches
(h) Malaga 2-2 Copa del Rey
(a) Real Sociedad 2-3 La Liga
(a) Malaga 4-2 Copa del Rey
(h) Osasuna 5-1 La Liga
(a) Real Madrid 1-1 Copa del Rey
(a) Valencia 1-1 La Liga
(h) Getafe 6-1 La Liga
(a) Granada 2-1 La Liga
(a) Milan 0-2 Champions Lge
(h) Seville 2-1 La Liga
(h) Real Madrid 1-3 Copa del Rey
Wins in bold
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