Shhhhh…listen…do you hear that? It’s the sound of millions of Barcelonistas screaming in horror. After a Spanish league record thirty-nine game unbeaten streak (39!), Futbol Club Barcelona have fallen mightily. After a loss at the Camp Nou in El Clásico, they have gone on to lose at The Anoeta to Real Sociedad and at home again to Valencia, losing three straight league games for the first time since 2003. The normally high-flying, fast paced Catalans have slowed to a creep recently. It cost them their chance at being the first team to repeat as European club champions in the Champions League era, losing to Atlético Madrid 2-0 on the night at the Estadio Vicente Calderón and 3-2 on aggregate. This recent run of form is incredibly foreign to a team who have collected more trophies than some people have years on this earth. For many, it’s surprising, but for those in the know, it was a long time coming.
After winning the 2015 Champions League and destroying Europe’s best in all competitions, the question was “Who can stop Barcelona from repeating the treble?” Turns out it was a multiple choice question with no wrong answer. A transfer ban delayed by a year meant no new players could be registered until 2016. Coupled with the call for early elections from then interim club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, with the departures of legends Xavi Hernandez and Pedro Rodriguez, gave Barcelona a thinner squad than usual going into the 2015/2016 campaign. Another summer tournament, the Copa America, meant integral first team pieces like Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves, Neymar Jr & Claudio Bravo played grueling football in the sweltering South American heat. It didn’t help that Argentina and Chile made the final (Messi + Mascherano and Bravo’s teams, respectively), seeing out the max number of games that could be played, were. UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers for the European contingent in the team lead to barely any breaks for anyone leading up to the start of the season. Add to that a summer tour of the USA playing preseason friendlies in the International Champions Cup tournament for two weeks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C and a press stop in New York City meant jet lag for anyone who had no national team obligations. A case of the mumps saw that, left winger Neymar Jr, would miss the UEFA Super Cup match between them and Europa League winners Sevilla. In Tblisi, Georgia, a tough side that knows Barça from their league and an early lead squandered meant 120 minutes of fast paced, end to end football for both teams. They escaped with their fourth trophy on the year but would be so lucky three days later in Bilbao. In the first leg of Supercopa de España, tons of travel and a short turn around, forced Luis Enrique to play a heavily rotated XI for the Catalans. The exhaustion and inexperience from some players showed as mistakes happened and Barcelona went on to get hammered on the night 4-0. They were back at it a week later however, hoping to turn around the result in the second leg, but it wasn’t meant to be and the sextuple dreams went up in smoke, 5-1 on aggregate.
The league season started off fine with a win against Bilbao, but it was short lived. A 4-1 loss at Celta Vigo, an ACL tear for Rafinha and a MCL tear for Messi meant Messi dependent Barça was now Messi independent and would have to sink or swim. Neymar and Suárez would soon put the team on their backs, with the former playing well enough to earn a spot on the Ballon d’Or podium. A 4-0 thrashing of eternal rivals Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu with Messi on the bench for the majority of the game signaled a new and improved Barcelona. One who can kill you with or without the greatest player of all time. Traveling to Japan and winning the FIFA Club World Cup was just the icing on the cake for the team of the year, Messi would then collect his record fifth Ballon d’Or and make the FIFA Team of The Year XI with teammates Neymar, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves. It wasn’t all roses as the team was bitten by its board trying to get more sponsorship money, to make transfers in January, and were left in the cold with no money and no transfers. The team would continue to streamroll the competition though, and rattled off the impressive 39 game unbeaten streak, including making a second consecutive Copa del Rey final, all while playing in great style, the only thing left on the check list was the Champions League. It wasn’t until after the fourth FIFA break of the year that the wheels fell off. Normally good with getting his team prepared for great matches after a break, it seemed like Luis Enrique’s men would walk away with a win too in the return leg of El Clásico. One goal controlled the game for 75 minutes until the Barcelona skipper unraveled his team with a few substitutions and lead Real Madrid walk away with a 2-1 win. They seemed to rebound well against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. A Fernando Torres goal and subsequent red card meant the Atléti talisman would leave the match and miss the home leg the following week. Two goals from Luis Suárez got the win and spirits were high that Barcelona would vanquish the years toughest challenge and wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes of 2014 where in the same CL knock out round (quarter finals), the same opponent (Atletico Madrid) and the same draw (Barcelona play the first leg at home), Barcelona were eliminated. A Saturday loss at Real Sociedad (A team they haven’t beaten away from home in 10 years) gave way to panic time. Two consecutive league losses and a draw to Villarreal, saw their comfortable points lead on Atléti and Real drop from 12 & 13 points to 3 & 4 points, respectively. A game in which the incredible MSN strike force, who already had 100+ goals on the year, only needed to score as to not lose, fired blanks. Meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann scored two goals on the night and sent his team to the semi finals. Another league loss, this time at home to Valencia, a team Barça had beaten 7-0 and drawn 1-1 twice, shrunk this points lead even further to 0 and 1 with the blaugrana only in first on head to head difference (beating Atléti 2-1 twice).
All of this has lead to massive Culer panic in Barça World. “Arda is a flop!” “Vidal is a flop!” “Sell Messi!” “Sell Neymar!” etc. etc. Massive overreactions worldwide even though it was apparent from the beginning of the season troubles could come. They just happened to snowball and bite us at the same time. A transfer ban, a restless summer, terrible sport planing, a rushed election, key injuries, rookie negotiating, a lack of funds, playing every three days for the better part of the season and tons of minutes for an already thin squad because there’s no other option meant that things can, could and will go bad, no a matter of if but when. Barcelona has the excellence to overcome, as evidenced by today’s 8-0 trouncing of Deportivo La Coruña but the pressure to be great can crack even the greatest of the greatest. All Barça have to do is win out and they can add two more trophies to the trophy case and the opportunity for a third, a reprieve, in the Spanish Supercup. If they learn from last Summer’s mistakes (and it seems they have as evidenced by this years participation in the ICC tour being European stops only), they’ll have money to bring in solid transfers this summer to reinforce the team, shed the deadweight who submarined the team at times this year, and go again in all comps again. I have extreme faith in them to do it because they haven’t given me a reason not to trust and most Barça fans shouldn’t either.