This past week has perhaps been the hardest for Barcelona Football Club for some years. Elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, a shock loss to Granada in La Liga and defeat in the Copa del Rey final against their fiercest rivals Real Madrid triggered delirious discussion across Spain of it all marking the “end of a cycle”.
Many times we have been here already. For some time such claims have emanated from Spain’s capital and it is no surprise. There is an anxiety in Madrid that comes with such talk, as if it cannot come soon enough.
After three consecutive defeats – something that had not happened since 2003, more than any time prior did this claim have credence. It was not just the defeats, it was the manner in which they happened.
Against Atletico, Barca were completely overrun. Against Granada, despite dominating possession there was a lack of killer-instinct in front of goal. And then against Madrid, Barca struggled to turn possession into chances and the team lacked a little fight, too, while Los Blancos showed plenty.
It looked as if it was all going to get even worse at Camp Nou on Sunday night. After 50 minutes of play Aritz Aduriz put Athletic Bilbao ahead. The white handkerchiefs then came out as a mixture of jeers and some cheers echoed around the stands.
More worrying however for the home fans was the Barca were not dominating possession like usual while chances were fairly evenly split up until this point. But, with their La Liga hopes fading fast, Barca showed another side to their game that has helped them to such great successes in recent years; the ability to fight and come back amid adversity.
And this is exactly what they did. With the clock ticking, Dani Alves received the ball out wide, turned three Athletic defenders inside out before laying it off to Alexis Sanchez whose shot-cum-pass was steered home by Pedro.
Two minutes later, what all Barca fans had been hoping for happened. Lionel Messi scored. After three games where the Argentine looked off the pace, disinterested and ineffective, Barca’s golden boy returned to be decisive as he drilled his free-kick into the back of the net.
It was not just his winner that delighted the home crowd either. There were glimpses of the real Messi throughout the match. The one that can weave is way through impossible spaces, past countless defenders and spray pin-point passes to his teammates. Indeed, it was a mazy little run by the Ballon d’Or winner that had won the free-kick from which he would get up to score the vital goal.
The win sees Barca sit four points behind leaders Atletico Madrid. All is not lost after all, it seems. A slip-up by Atletico in the next three games could see the title decided in the final game of the season when Atleti travel to Camp Nou. That would be something special.
Yet, as Martino noted, “The title is out of our hands”. But, like he continued, “The least we can is engage with the hope of winning”. And if they do this, then who knows? Anything is possible still, including the possibility of Barca retaining their league title. If they somehow do it, it would be nice way to mark the “end of the cycle”.