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Barcelona's Schoolboy Defending Will Cost Them the Title
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
Barcelona received a big wake-up call from Valencia at Camp Nou.

Barcelona vs. Valencia was never meant to be like this.

Maybe it was the early kickoff that disrupted the preparations, but this wasn’t anywhere close to the excellence we have come to enjoy and appreciate from both sides.

Like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, for the first half at least, Los Che were simply masquerading as a La Liga stalwart.

Barca can rarely have had an easier ride.

They’ve played some sparkling football in the recent past, but the first 45 was as close as you will come to seeing an exhibition game.

In a week where Racing Santander refused to play their Copa del Rey quarter-final second leg because of unpaid wages, Valencia’s financial status was again brought into sharp focus.

The loss of a number of prominent first-teamers no doubt contributed to the haphazard way in which they performed.

Only Dani Parejo emerged with any credit for the visitors in that opening period, and his goal on 43 minutes was a just personal reward for his endeavours.

To say it was against the run of play is to state the obvious.

It took until well into the second minute before the visitors even gained control of the football.

Xavi Hernandez conducted the Blaugrana orchestra from the very first whistle and Valencia had barely been out of their own half before Alexis Sanchez added to his burgeoning reputation.

A driven cross from the hard-working Lionel Messi was met by the Chilean who placed an exquisite first-time chip back over Diego Alves for the opener.

Valencia’s defensive line continued to resemble headless chickens running about Camp Nou without too much idea, with Jeremy Mathieu and Ricardo Costa much too far apart. The seamless and incisive transitions from Barca ensured that the visitors rarely saw the ball.

By the 20-minute mark, Valencia had already begun to commit so many men forward that Barca could enjoy a four-on-four counter-attack.

Tata Martino might well have asked questions therefore as to how Parejo was able to silence Camp Nou just before the break.

In fact, the warning signs began to creep in just before the leveller, with Victor Valdes misjudging a corner but the unmarked attacker heading wide when a completely open goal faced him.

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
Tata Martino cut a forlorn figure.

It was another prime example of Barca's inability to defend the high ball, but the lesson was ignored because within three minutes of the restart, Piatti had incredibly headed the visitors ahead.

Far too complacent in defence, Dani Alves barely challenged for the looping cross, and with Valdes stranded in no-man's land, it was headed up and over the keeper and in.

What it highlighted was a very real need to work on simple defensive aspects of Barca’s game.

They are no longer the team of 2010/11, and the ethos of “you score three, we’ll score four” doesn’t fit Tata Martino’s mantra or his brand of football.

A fortuitous penalty decision on 52 gave an off-colour Messi the opportunity to score his first La Liga goal of 2014, and a bullet into the top corner restored parity.

Just six minutes later, the good work had been undone—and Barca’s defence were again squarely to blame.

When Sofiane Feghouli picked up the ball surrounded by four Barca players there was little hint of danger, yet he simply waltzed though a couple of cursory challenges and crossed for Paco Alcacer to slam home.

Gerard Pique, as is his wont, once again just stood in the middle and admired. Schoolboy defending which he gets away with time after time after time.

Now we saw Valencia with some exhibition play of their own. It was, genuinely, a game of two halves.

Xavi was replaced by his old sparring partner Andres Iniesta and Martino cut a forlorn figure as El Illusionista took the field. There appeared to be a sense of inevitability about the outcome.

Valencia became much more solid defensively as the clock wound down, and began beating Barca at their own game in their own backyard.

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Pique made yet another mistake later on and it was only by sheer good fortune that he was able to atone for his error.

Not anywhere near the player he can be since the mauling he faced at the hands of Bayern Munich, the lack of first-class competition merely papers over the cracks.

Today we saw yet again that, under pressure, Gerard Pique is not up to the simple task of defending. He will continue to be first choice, but he needs the shock of being taken out of the spotlight to give him time to refocus.

Jordi Alba’s red card and subsequent ban merely adds to Tata Martino’s current woes.

This is the first time in 66 home games that Barcelona have lost to anyone other than Real Madrid.

By the end of the weekend it could be the first time in 60 weeks that they are not atop La Liga.

Free-scoring Manchester City are on the horizon and will offer a much more serious threat than Barca faced Saturday.

Many more days like this and the title will certainly be beyond Barca and may mean saying ta-ta to Tata sooner than expected.

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