Given that Barcelona hadn’t won away to Real Sociedad in eight years, defeat was perhaps on the cards regardless of form. While the curse of Anoeta continues and Geronimo Rulli enjoyed perhaps the best game of his career, it is difficult to escape the feeling which more was amiss during the match.
Barcelona have looked far from themselves in recent matches, looked lacking in ruthlessness, cutting edge and – to put it bluntly – tired. Having to compete in six competitions this season, exhaustion was bound to happen. However, the once imperious-looking Barca seem to be tailing off at the one moment it matters most.
If Barca were looking to reignite the title race, they certainly did that. With six games in La Liga remaining, the 10-point lead the Catalans held in March has been sliced to just three, and that’s on top of a testing trip to the Vicente Calderon for the second leg of a finely-poised Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid.
The one thing Atleti can guarantee is work rate and energy, and whether Barca can physically match that at this point in the season is questionable. As Luis Enrique’s side embarked on a record-breaking unbeaten run, the temptation was to keep things as they are.
But perhaps greater rotation against easier teams may have aided their cause, especially their front three. The international break has done little to help either. Their attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi all flew to South America at the end of March to play in important World Cup qualifiers.
Far from his commanding and influential self, Messi has drifted in and out of matches, finding himself ineffective in both the wide and deep-lying positions. And while most can go four matches with a goal for their club, for him it constitutes a drought.
Suarez saved their bacon in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Atleti but was suspended for the trip to La Real, and his team looked toothless. It’s a delicate balance as Barca lose so much without the ‘MSN’ in their XI, and Munir El Haddadi hasn’t always shown himself capable of filling their boots.
Barca’s participation in the Club World Cup will have also played a part in their fatigue. The team flew to Japan to play two matches, but as well as the extra games, rescheduled fixtures had to be squeezed into an already-bulging calendar.
For top clubs, it’s a situation they should be equipped to deal with. But in Spain with the Madrid sides breathing down their neck, one or two slip-ups are fatal. Atleti and Madrid both recorded comfortable wins over Espanyol and Eibar and are now within points of the League leaders.
Thankfully for La Blaugrana, their early-season form can allow them this dip in form. With a superior head-to-head record and arguably an easier fixture list, Barca are still very likely to win the title. But they may trudge over the finishing line as opposed to strolling across it.