On Sunday morning before his side’s trip to San Mames, Barcelona Coach Tata Martino said: “I would agree and sign to lose only one match in the first 20 games.” He was of course referring to his team’s loss at Ajax in midweek, a result he was still receiving flak for. By the evening, the question was whether he would have signed up for two losses in 21 games, after seeing his side succumb to a second consecutive defeat.
It has not been easy from the start for Tata. His side may have started the season in record-breaking fashion, conjuring more wins in a row than Pep Guardiola or Tito Vilanova ever achieved. However, criticism has been levelled at him almost from day one, mainly due to the Argentine being seen as an ‘outsider’ – that is to say, as someone from outside the Barcelona ‘family’.
The Catalan Press, more than results, have been obsessed with the team’s style of play amid the fear that with Martino at the helm, Barcelona are going to lose their tiki-taka way of playing. This was most obvious Barca’s away win to Rayo Vallecano earlier in the season. They won 4-0, but, all the post-match talk was about how the side, for the first time in 317 games, were outdone in possession.
For all intents and purposes and as evident last night at San Mames, Barca have not lost their style. But, they have lost something else – at least in their last two games – and that is the ability to make their possession count. Particularly in the first half, which Martino claimed ‘was perhaps the best 45 minutes we have played this season’, his side simply failed to translate their domination into goals.
The absence of Lionel Messi does not help, of course. However, this is something the Blaugrana will have to get used to while they await his return in January. In any case, there is still plenty enough talent on the field to get the job done. The problem though, is that the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez – both substituted late on – and Cesc Fabregas are not at the top of their game.
Mundo Deportivo’s front page on Sunday read: ‘Reaction’, stating that Barca’s resolve to overcome adversity would be tested at San Mames. While they did start positively, showing a much improved attitude, ultimately, they failed. Most concerning of all was their complete lack of reaction after going down on 70 minutes. Like against a 10-man Ajax last week, it just never looked like Barca were going to draw level. There was no urgency, no real desire to fight and scrap for the points and for this reason, in the end, the champions got what they deserved, another defeat.
While Barca have descended into crisis, Real Madrid continued to rise. Unlike Barcelona, the absence of their star, Cristiano Ronaldo, was hardly felt thanks to Gareth Bale, who scored his first hat-trick for his new side against Real Valladolid and put in a great assist for good measure. The goals are flowing at the Santiago Bernabeu, the football is much more pleasing to the eye and Barca’s troubles have only added to the good vibrations be felt in the capital.
And, it is not just in Chamartin that they are being felt. Across town there is quietly growing optimism that this could just be Atletico Madrid’s year. Diego Simeone’s side, following Barca’s defeat, are now joint-leaders. For the first time in a long time, it looks as if there could be a three-horse race for La Liga. Hay La Liga!