Is Barcelona's La Liga Title Challenge Over After Defeat to Granada?

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Is Barcelona's La Liga Title Challenge Over After Defeat to Granada?
Daniel Tejedor

Barcelona crashed to a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of Granada on Saturday evening, completing a simply dreadful week for the Catalan club.

Without Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra or Carles Puyol in defence, Tata Martino's makeshift back four was quickly exposed by the energetic home side when Yacine Brahimi raced in behind the visitors' defensive line—the Algerian split Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets before cooly slotting home the game's first and only goal.

Worryingly, the result could have been far worse for Barcelona if not for a series of first-half saves from maligned goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto. Indeed, despite the team's usual possession dominance, the Catalans' imperious attacking brigade couldn't cover up the frailties existing at the back—a fact not helped by Alex Song's lackadaisical showing as the visitors' holding midfielder. 

Yet, after enduring a barrage of criticism regarding the team's energy and desire in the wake of the club's Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid, Barcelona's unexpected setback on Saturday was actually the result of missed chances rather than the product of a missing competitive edge.

Daniel Tejedor

Across 90 minutes at the Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes, Barcelona made 29 attempts on goal, with nine of those on target, according to ESPN FC. With 11 of those attempts falling to Lionel Messi and Neymar, it's quite remarkable that Granada managed to escape with a clean sheet against La Blaugrana

But as the missed chances piled up, a team low on confidence simply couldn't conjure the brilliance to overcome its stubborn and well-organised opponents. 

But where does Barcelona's shock defeat leave the club in La Liga's title race?

The most telling outcome, of course, is that Martino's men no longer control their own fate. Now a point behind league leaders Atletico and having played an extra game, Barcelona must rely on other results going their way if they are to defend their crown. Should Atletico overcome Getafe on Sunday, Los Colchoneros will own a four-point lead over Messi and co. 

Certainly, it would be foolish to write Barcelona off given the twisting and turning nature of this year's La Liga title race. But examining the club's run home makes it clear why the team's loss on Saturday was so destructive. 

With confidence at a season low and injuries continuing to mount, La Blaugrana face fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao in their next league encounter before taking on a Villarreal side that presented a stern test to Barcelona in a 2-1 victory at the Nou Camp in December.

And while subsequent matches against Getafe and Elche should present more straightforward opportunities to claim three points, a final-day clash with Diego Simeone's marching side is hardly the desired finale Barcelona would want—assuming the title race is still alive at that point.

Daniel Tejedor

In contrast, Atletico will enjoy an arguably easier run in, with Sunday's encounter against Getafe set to be followed by a clash with Elche at home before travelling to the Mestalla Stadium to take on a Valencia outfit that has slipped in 2013-14. Games against Levante and Malaga come next.

Perhaps the only possible hindrance for Los Rojiblancos in their quest for the league crown is the club's ongoing Champions League campaign, which will see the men from Spain's capital take on Chelsea in the competition's semi-finals. 

Barcelona's fierce rivals Real Madrid have also surpassed the Catalans after Saturday's 4-0 win over Almeria; Carlo Ancelotti's side now sits a point ahead of its heavyweight counterparts. 

Daniel Tejedor

The most pressing issue for Martino is to relocate his side's usual clarity of purpose. While their league defence is now dependant on others, Barcelona simply must control the controllable. Injuries certainly present the manager with countless headaches, but there has also been a curious unease permeating through Barcelona's squad this week.

Against Atletico on Wednesday, a team associated with relentless and precise passing resorted to whipping in crosses to diminutive forwards, almost abandoning its characteristic approach in the face of Atletico's aggressive and well-drilled defence.

Tactically, Messi was puzzlingly deployed on the right, Andres Iniesta was curiously withdrawn, and both Pedro and Alexis Sanchez were brought on in what felt like a desperately unbalanced gamble. 

On Saturday against a vastly inferior team, that strange uncertainty was again present. The desire that was questioned, the competitive edge and even the attempts on goal were all there. But the usual flow, organisation and rhythm of the side weren't. For a second consecutive match, a team possessing the attacking genius of Barcelona was held goalless.

Criticism of the team's defence and the club's failure to address those problems in recent transfer windows will certainly continue. But had Barcelona possessed their usual cutting edge, those concerns would have been somewhat subdued. Instead, missed chances and an apparent whiff of vulnerability were the culprits. 

If his team is to remain in the hunt, Martino must find a way of recapturing that supreme self-assurance that has been missing across this disastrous week for Barcelona. 

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