League still Barca’s to lose

“It’s painful to lose at home … it had to happen someday,” lamented Luis Enrique. There was definitely more to it than he was willing to admit, however. Yes, it is painful for any side to lose in front of their own fans. But, it is slightly more painful when it’s a Clasico, against arch-rivals Real Madrid; when it’s Ronaldo – who is so loathed by the Barcelona fans – scores the winner and when it brings a 39-game unbeaten run to an abrupt end. And, of course, it’s slightly more painful when it’s in the same match that the club pay homage to arguably their most important figure ever, Johan Cruyff.

It was just not meant to end this way. Madrid clearly had not read the script and Barca, for their part, fluffed their lines. It was going all their way for about 70 minutes until they started to stagger and stutter. Just as they did, Madrid ran rampant and, in the end, ran away victorious with three points in the bag. Furthermore, it was wholly deserved. Even the great Clasico provocateur, Gerard Pique, agreed, “Real Madrid deserved their win.”

Even when it was going Barca’s way, something seemed amiss. They had the ball yes, but, they were not doing too much with it – at least, not as much as we have come to expect. They failed to create many clear-cut chances and when they did, it went awry just like when Luis Suarez completely mistimed a chance with the goal gaping early in the first half. The Uruguayan seemed to lose his confidence from that moment onwards.

But it wasn’t just the former Liverpool man who didn’t not look his usual lethal self. Neymar cut an isolated figure and when, just as his teammate, an opportunity did come his way his final touch let him down. And then there was Messi, at least in parts there was. The Argentine was on the field but there were moments when you could have thought otherwise. It’s now five meetings on the trot with Real Madrid that Messi has failed to score in.

Usually, the Messi, Suarez and Neymar trio, the ‘MSN’, do enough to pull their side to victory. Indeed, their record at home this season is rather ridiculous. Between their loss on Saturday and their last home loss, ‘MSN’ had scored a combined total of 92 goals – that’s 77 percent of Barca’s 119 goals at Camp Nou in all competitions. Yes, rather ridiculous.

But, it wasn’t just ‘MSN’ who were culpable. The entire side simply were not at their best. And, it was perhaps not for a want of trying, but rather they just ran out of steam.

Barca have played a dozen more times than Madrid this season. Suarez, Messi, Neymar, plus Dani Alves and Claudio Bravo had all just returned from across the Atlantic and it showed. Enrique was not having any of it as an excuse, but fatigue could explain even Andres Iniesta’s view that the side suffered as a result of losing their positioning. After all, it takes legs to move into the right position. Enrique’s subbing on of Arda Turan for Ivan Rakitic didn’t help either. Santi Segurola for Marca summed it up best when describing Barca’s performance as “a monument of fatigue and confusion, ending up disfigured and with everyone out of place”.

Hardly mentioned but most certainly a factor, at least psychologically, was the fact that on Tuesday Barca host Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Clasico is always an important fixture and no doubt the players gave all they had – it just wasn’t enough, however, with a healthy buffer at the top of La Liga. Maybe Enrique’s players had one eye on Los Rojiblancos when taking to the pitch against Los Blancos.

Looking ahead to this fixture, Atleti Coach Diego Simeone is probably licking his lips. Barca are looking tired and his side already gave them a good run for their money in January, even when playing with just nine men. Moreover, Enrique does not have much time to recoup his players physically and mentally before they again welcome the capital side to Camp Nou. It certainly was a painful loss for Barcelona, the consequences of which may still be evident if they fail to get a favourable result against Simeone’s men.

For some commentators, it might just hurt in terms of Barca’s title bid too. Gareth Bale and Zinedine Zidane’s post-match comments certainly suggest that there is belief again at the Santiago Bernabeu while one feels belief is neither in short supply at the Vicente Calderon these days.

However, to suggest that it’s now an open race for the title is to get carried away with one result a little too much. Sure, Madrid have stopped the Catalans’ march to back-to-back League titles, but Enrique’s men still lead by six points. It would still require a monumental collapse from Barca for the League trophy to end up in the capital. It’s still theirs to lose, and while Saturday was a painful blip on their path, Barca are still on course.