Last weekend’s crazy results gave FC Barcelona a fighting chance at the Liga title. It is a known fact that even the league title will not save Gerardo Martino now, with everything right from his tactics to his handling of players being called into question. The consensus here is that Martino is a very good man, but more suited to the South American game rather than the glitz and glamour of Europe, where the spotlights are on every action you take. The media also made it a point to refer to a “farewell party” of sorts that Martino supposedly threw last week. It is now common knowledge that the Barcelona players had given up the title for dead last week after conceding a draw in a game they should have won. It would appear that rather than enthuse the players and go for the jugular in the last two games of the season, as most other coaches would have done, Martino threw in the towel himself, cancelling scheduled training sessions and organizing his infamous Argentine barbecue. Unfortunately (or should we say fortunately?) for the players, Real and Atletico slipped up in eminently winnable games and gave Barcelona a second chance. Now the onus was on Barcelona to win the remaining two games of the season to retain their title, which would, if it were to happen, be their sixth Liga title in the last seven years. All the talk in the press was about how Barcelona were in charge of their own destiny and in many quarters, there was this supposed belief that the league title was a formality now.
And what does Barcelona do away against relegation threatened Elche? They come out and lay an egg. Yes, there was certainly more intensity than has been visible in recent weeks when the players have looked painfully jaded and bereft of ideas, their minds wandering and sinking just like their season. Messi looked more involved, Dani Alves played a superb game and so did Alexis Sanchez. Only Pedro really looked off-color. But in spite of all of this, that fluidity of the Barcelona game from years gone by was missing. And it has been missing since Christmas till which point Barcelona were cruising along. I think it is a conceivable truth that Barcelona’s decline coincided with Neymar’s unfortunate ankle injury. Neymar had been that spark that Barcelona had been missing for the last couple of years and his sheer presence opened up opportunities for Messi. But once he went down – and even though he did come back, albeit a far poorer version of the early season Neymar, lacking in confidence and indeed, results – Barcelona was doomed. They have looked a discombobulated wreck, both on and off the pitch.
For one, Martino has created a system that does not revolve around Messi as much as it did before. That might be seen as a good thing, if you take into account the oft-quoted “Messidependencia” from last year, but somehow, the Argentine seems to not be on board with it all. There were murmurs that the ridiculous price Barcelona paid to secure Neymar was a sign that they wanted to built their future around him and not Messi. In any case, the Messi we have seen this year has not been close to as devastating as he can be when he is fully switched on. Add to it the horrendous injuries to stalwarts Victor Valdes,Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. Yes, there is an excuse, the team had to deal with a lot of injury. But where are the backups? And this is where the spotlight has to be put fair and square on the management. They simply have not done a good job of stacking each position with able replacements.
Coming back to today, the draw with Elche ought to have been the final nail in Barcelona’s coffin for the year, but amazingly, Atletico were held to a draw at home to Malaga, something even Barcelona could not achieve when they visited the Vicente Calderon for the Champions League Quarterfinals. It almost seems as though some divine power is keeping Barcelona in the hunt, giving them chance after chance to at least take home the Liga title.
On Saturday the 17th, it will finally be decided. The Camp Nou has been sold put. There will be over 100,000 spectators cheering on the teams, the majority of whom would be Blaugrana fans, and the equation is pretty simple for the Catalans. Win and you are crowned champions again. Lose or even draw, Atletico wins the league. It is prudent to keep in mind that in 6 clashes between the 2 teams this season, there have been 5 draws and the only result was an Atletico win at the Calderon during the Champions League Quarterfinal. Home advantage will only take you so far against a well-drilled, disciplined and motivated side like Ateltico Madrid, which under Diego Simeone has suprised the world and could very well end up with the League and be crowned the champions of Europe.
It is going to be one final war to decide this crazy season and as all Barcelona fans will be doing, I am hoping that El Blaugrana will bring their A games to the pitch at home on Saturday. But if recent results are anything to go by, it would be wise to look ahead to next season and not hope too much. If the team can leave their all on the pitch and give Atletico a good shake, I will be proud of my team – as I always am, anyway – regardless of the result.
A league crown will be a cherry on the cake, of course!