Will the real Barca please stand up?

By common consent, Tata Martino is presiding over Barcelona’s worst season in recent memory. Occupying an unfamiliar third place in La Liga after a dip in form at the turn of the year, the champions’ chances of retaining their title are rapidly slipping away. Criticised earlier in the season, even when his side were unbeaten and riding high, Martino is a man under pressure.

Saturday’s defeat at lowly Real Valladolid brought into sharp relief how mediocre Barcelona have become, with their second consecutive away reverse following February’s loss at Real Sociedad, leaving Real Madrid as clear favourites to take over champions’ mantle and city rivals Atletico their closest challengers.

Earlier in the campaign, Martino’s side had often contrived to win games without playing particularly well. A more direct style drew criticism, despite results proving its effectiveness, but there were already signs that the Catalans were finding it difficult to break down resolute defences. Teams that in the past would roll over and die when confronted by Lionel Messi’s power and creativity in front of goal, and the relentless high pressing of the Barca midfield, now saw themselves capable of frustrating and even beating the champions.

The defeat at Valladolid has created an interesting prelude for Barca’s Champions League Last 16 second-leg encounter with Manchester City at Camp Nou. Taking a 2-0 advantage from the first leg in Manchester into tonight’s game, even a lacklustre Barca are most people’s favourites to progress. Their performance at the Etihad Stadium, while by no means vintage Barca, was a quality display against good opponents, with chances clinically taken.

Just days after such a convincing win over City, La Blaugrana capitulated 3-1 against Real Sociedad at Anoeta and it could easily have been much worse if the Basques had taken their chances. How could a team of such talented and experienced superstars play so badly? Would it have happened under Pep Guardiola or Tito Vilanova? This time, the sequence is reversed. Can Barca raise their game again against City after turning in such a mediocre display at Valladolid?

Superficially, it appears impossible that a team can suffer defeat against a side battling relegation and still remain serious Champions League contenders. With the crucial knock-out phase of the competition providing a focus for the latter stage of the season, Martino will need to instil greater consistency in his side, starting tonight against a City outfit that has also demonstrated signs of vulnerability in recent weeks. Nothing less than a last eight berth will be acceptable to the fans or the Barca hierarchy.

At the same time, there is the small matter of El Clasico in Madrid the weekend after next. Los Blancos are hitting their best form just as Barca are looking shaky and, while games between the big two are often too close to call, Real Madrid will go into this one as firm favourites. Victory over City – and a convincing performance – will go some way towards silencing Barca’s doubters. Anything less will crank up the discontent at Camp Nou and pile the pressure on Martino.