For quite possibly the first time this decade, Barcelona are facing some form of crisis. Small it may be, compared to the troubles of Aston Villa, but nontheless it is a situation about which Luis Enrique has some serious thinking to do.
Just two months previously, Barcelona ran utter riot over Valencia in the Copa Del Rey, sending them out of the competition with their tail between their legs after a 7-0 victory. Now, they sit in the wake of a 2-1 reverse by Los Che, compounding a series of fixtures in which they have looked nothing short of normal, human, and beatable. They’ve now blown nine point lead over Atletico and a ten pointer over Real, both of whom now sit level, and a point behind respectively.
There are areas in which Barca are fatally flawed and teams are at last realising this. Teams such as Valencia and Real Sociedad are sides that Barcelona would win against, perhaps not routinely, but could not fathom losing against. But they are because their weaknesses are exposed.
Problem number 1 is height. Three of the back four are under six feet tall (Jordi Alba 5ft 7; Dani Alves 5ft 8; Javier Mascherano 5ft 9) which has left only Gerard Pique (6ft 4) to neutralise the aerial threat which has seen 2 in the last 5 conceded come from headers, with the two goals Real Madrid scored coming from airborne attacks that the defence failed to deal with adequately.
The second is squad depth. The squad on Saturday contained at full back Sergi Roberto, in place of Dani Alves, who looked very uncomfortable from the word go. Barca’s starting XI can be rattled off by football followers in a matter of moments, because they stick to it consistently. Having competed in several tournaments at the same time, it is understandable that the players should feel a little jaded at this stage of proceedings. What is unacceptable is that Luis Enrique has failed to address such a problem by replacing them with solid subordinates.
The midfield three consists of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, and Ivan Rakitic. In the final third, they are possess as much prowess as the three attackers they supply to -Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. However, the open spaces they leave in the middle of the park and the responsibility of marking the attacking midfielders were left to only Busquets, meaning they midfield was constantly overrun and they were punished twice on Saturday because of it.
Now they are in a position where they cannot afford another defeat realistically. Zinedine Zidane has brought Real back into contention with some fine managerial work and tactics, however the manner in which they scraped past Wolfsburg shows the other end of the Real performance spectrum. The edge lies with Diego Simeone. He has instilled a psychology of never letting his players heads fly in the sky until the job is done. Subsequently their grounded attitude adds to their already grounded style of play, and with Antoine Griezmann firing on all cylinders, and a defence so solid it has conceded just 16 goals all season, if anyone is to overhaul Barca – you’d bank on it being Atleti.
So with just 5 games left, this is the hardest task Barcelona have to claw back on. If they fail to do so, questions – and a lot of them – will be asked about how a team so mighty disintegrated so quickly.