In a football universe governed by logic, a team could not go into a second leg against Barcelona, trailing 2-0, possessed with anything over than a profound sense of fatalism, but if Manchester City were desperately casting around for a glimmer of hope, the Catalans’ utterly bemusing 1-0 defeat to Real Valladolid on Saturday may just have provided it.
A 1-0 reversal against a team in the relegation zone was shocking enough, but the staggering degree of Barcelona’s ineptitude put this defeat firmly in the realms of the bizarro world. It is hard to think of a worse performance in recent memory from a Barcelona team – even taking into account the way Bayern Munich destroyed them in Europe last season.
Clumsy at the back, careless in midfield and incapacitated in attack, this was a catastrophic performance from a cultural giant, like watching an obese Elvis sweat, mumble and stumble his way through a set in early 1977, leaving you wondering, heartbroken, how he was ever once the greatest entertainer on earth.
Losing Andres Iniesta due to personal reasons just prior to the weekend was unfortunate, but Barcelona still possessed some of modern football’s most acclaimed individuals. Not that you could tell from watching their display against a side who had won only four times in 26 games.
Lionel Messi went close on a couple of occasions – firstly from a wonderful dribble which recalled the forward at his very best – but he was subdued, and this just days after Martino admitted the sight of the Argentina star vomiting on the pitch during an international was “not right”, even if the Barca coach was adamant his level of performance remained unaffected.
While Messi was disappointing, his star support act fared even worse: Neymar, who scored a hat-trick for Brazil against South Africa in midweek, wasted the best chance of the match when inexcusably firing over the bar in the second half.
The pitch looked rather rutted, but there was to be no excuse for the level of Barcelona’s performance sinking below ground level. As Martino himself admitted, this was a singularly un-Barca 90 minutes.
“The team lacked ideas but not intensity,” he said. “We completely failed in generating play and that’s what stopped us from getting the result. We lacked what makes us Barca: good elaboration in our build-up, finding spaces, breaking through on the wings and having depth. But we didn’t lack attitude.
"We had very few chances of actually running at goal. We almost always had to fight against 10 defenders. A good solution would have been creating more space.”
As much as the brilliant, balletic beauty of their play has enshrined Barcelona’s reputation as one of the great modern teams, the advent of greater statistical apparatus has also embellished it: Xavi’s pass completion stats are common currency; Johan Cruyff’s are not. And on Saturday, the stats were very much aligned against Martino’s side.
During their lamentable performance, Barcelona sent 77 passes astray in the opposition half, their worst total in La Liga this season; they exceeded 80% possession for the fourth time in six seasons but it was the first time they have lost while doing so; Barca conceded the first goal for the fifth time in their past six away games; and this was the first time they had lost two consecutive away games for nearly six years.
There was even speculation amongst seasoned Barca watchers that this was arguably the club’s worst performance since the days of Frank Rijkaard, before Pep Guardiola revolutionised the club and Tito Vilanova, briefly, continued his work. What is certainly true is that they have not lost four times after 28 games since the last, ruinous season of Rikjaard’s reign in 2007-08. Martino is not flattered by the comparison.
The talk in the Catalan press is of another regime change this summer, with prominent papers speculating even before this weekend that Martino’s time is up having allowed Barca to regress this season. Though not terminal, a 1-0 defeat to Real Valladolid also unmistakably damages their title pretensions, and a defeat in the Bernabeu Clasico on March 23 could extinguish them altogether.
As such, the Champions League takes on more importance. In all likelihood, Barcelona will hold off Manchester City on Wednesday night and reach the quarter-finals, but, thanks to the abject nature of their loss on Saturday, what once seemed impossible now seems rather less so.
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport
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