5 Things That Are Wrong with Barcelona Right Now
For the first time in 59 consecutive matchdays, Barcelona do not sit at the top of La Liga. Let that sink in.
The Blaugrana’s defeat to Valencia was their first home reverse to a side other than Real for 66 La Liga matches, since September 2010 against Hercules.
Barcelona's record streak of leading the Liga table for 59 consecutive matchdays (all-time record) comes to an end as Atlético surpass them.— Infostrada Sports (@InfostradaLive) February 2, 2014
Valencia become the first team since Hercules in Sept 2010, other than Madrid, to beat Barcelona at Camp Nou in La Liga. 66 games later.— Samuel Marsden (@samuelmarsden) February 1, 2014
They are no longer Europe's most feared side; that much was already established when Bayern Munich beat them 7-0 on aggregate in last year's Champions League semi-final.
But what is particularly worrying for Barcelona supporters is that it's not old rivals Real Madrid that have overtaken them in the eternal tussle, but Atletico Madrid.
That shows how far Barcelona have fallen.
This is not to do Atletico down; they are a strong side with a good manager and deserve to be where they are, but the Barcelona side that dominated Europe for several years would not find themselves in this position.
So, what's going wrong?
Lionel Messi Needs His Shooting Boots
When Barcelona were playing badly before, they always turned to one man—Lionel Messi—to drag them out of danger.
The Argentine has been crowned the best player in the world four times, has smashed numerous records and is capable of carrying the entire side on his shoulders.
But at the moment, Messi is struggling. His goal on Saturday against Valencia was his first in nine La Liga games. He played reasonably well, but, barring one chance at the end, didn't look like finding the net.
Compare that to the start of the season, when he scored eight in his first nine domestic matches.
Including, incidentally, a hat-trick in a 3-2 win for Barcelona against Valencia—the opposite of Saturday’s shambles at Camp Nou.
After returning from his latest injury—they are becoming a frequent worry—Messi has often been playing in a deeper role, providing the ammunition for his team-mates.
And while he’s good at this, the prime objective in football is scoring goals, and the Blaugrana star has shown for several years that it's what he’s best at.
The sooner he gets back to business, the better.
Neymar's Absence Came at the Wrong Time
A lot of people considered Neymar overrated when he moved from Santos to Barcelona last summer.
And for the first few weeks of the season it seemed like they might have been right; the Brazilian showed flashes of his extraordinary talent but not enough consistency.
However, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Having lost their last two games, Barcelona headed into a Champions League clash with Celtic on December 11, from which the Scottish side thought they may be able to take something.
But Neymar had other ideas.
He scored a magnificent hat-trick to help Barcelona win 6-1 and then added two more to earn the Blaugrana a 2-1 win over Villarreal three days later.
Since then, though, suspension, gastroenteritis and now an ankle injury have restricted him to just two appearances.
And with Messi out or off-colour, Neymar missing as well was the last thing that Tata Martino needed.
No Defensive Diligence
Against Valencia, the Barcelona defence made several errors. No single party was blameless, either.
Full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Alves looked vulnerable—particularly the former.
Valencia’s best player was right-winger Sofiane Feghouli, who made Alba pay for his defensive deficiencies on several occasions, laying on two assists.
Alba was later sent off as Barcelona began to panic.
Gerard Pique had lost his man, Daniel Parejo, for the first goal and simply stood and watched as Paco Alcacer tucked home the winner.
Victor Valdes, too, looked shaky; perhaps his impending transfer at the end of the season, per Goal.com's Pilar Suarez, is a distraction.
The goalkeeper was at fault for Valencia’s second goal, standing in no-man's-land and allowing the smallest player on the pitch to loop a header over him and into the net.
Javier Mascherano missed a few tackles, too, and while he wasn't individually culpable for any of the goals, he isn't going to be part of the base of a water-tight defence.
Barcelona also conceded the first goal to minnows Levante three times in the three matches they played against them last month.
Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and the rest of the Manchester City squad will rubbing their hands ahead of their Champions League clash with Barcelona.
Is Something Missing from the Engine Room?
There’s no doubting the quality of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. The pair have been at the peak of the game for several years.
But Xavi is 34 and recently played his 700th game for Barcelona. Iniesta is 29 and soon to be 30.
Sometimes you wonder if a bit of dynamism and youthful force is missing from the midfield.
Sergio Busquets, of course, is 25 and has many years ahead of him, but he plays in the deepest midfield role and has defensive duties to attend to.
Against Valencia, Xavi was ineffective until he was replaced by Iniesta, who proved to be just as useful afterwards.
Meanwhile, Thiago Alcantara is thriving with Pep Guardiola in Germany, having scored a last-minute winner with a spectacular bicycle kick for Bayern Munich against Stuttgart.
Does Tata Have the Magic Touch?
Manager Tata Martino is culpable for some of Barcelona’s woes.
Defensively, for instance, he hasn’t made enough use of youngster Marc Bartra.
The 23-year-old centre-back certainly won’t fix all of the defensive problems but has definitely earned a run in the side ahead of Pique or Mascherano.
And Martin Montoya might have more to offer than Dani Alves at the back right now, if not pushing forward.
At the Valencia game, South American journalist Eugenia Karolyi said to me that she was unsure if Martino had the same magic touch to inspire players as Guardiola and Valencia’s coach Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Valencia had an incredible belief on Saturday, in the second half at least.
A key moment in the game was the save by Diego Alves from Alexis Sanchez’s header, which would have put the Catalans 2-0 up.
After that, Valencia started to come out from under the cosh, equalising just before half-time.
Oriol Romeu told me after the game: “We had to do it, we had to play with that intensity and that character because otherwise it's impossible to get three points in this stadium.”
And Pizzi is a character who can conjure that spirit. Can Martino?