ESTADIO CIUTAT DE VALENCIA, Valencia — Luis Enrique blamed the wind. And the coach was right. That was one of several reasons Barcelona were below par against Levante on Saturday.
But it wasn't the main reason, which was that the Blaugrana were tired. Not because of poor physical preparation, but because of a demanding schedule. They are victims of their own success.
Since the Asturian coach took over, Barcelona have played every possible game, because they just keep winning. Levante were their latest prey, with the visitors rather fortunately winning 2-0.
On top of the La Liga schedule, they reached the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League finals, with success on those occasions also entering them into the Spanish and European Super Cups and the FIFA Club World Cup.
This season, they have virtually reached the Copa final again, have progressed to the last 16 in the Champions League and, of course, are completing their domestic top-flight fixtures.
Luis Enrique’s team have won 80 of the 100 games in his tenure, the most recent being the scrappy, scraped 2-0 over Levante in Valencia at Sunday lunchtime.
The team travelled down Spain’s east coast on Saturday night, staying in a hotel ahead of the game before flying back directly afterwards.
They will return to the same city on Wednesday to face Valencia in the second of seven fixtures away from Camp Nou in a run of nine games. Trips to Sporting Gijon, Las Palmas, Arsenal, Rayo Vallecano and Eibar are coming up in the next few weeks.
There is no chance for them to catch their breath, with a game every three days or so. And you can see it on the pitch.
You get the feeling Barcelona are playing within themselves in a lot of fixtures, conserving energy and biding their time. They will need to be at the peak of their powers during April and May, when the season comes to a head.
Often they have poor first halves, trying to keep the ball and tire the opposition but putting themselves at risk of attacks without creating an overload of their own, before trying to hurt the other side in the second half by ramping up the speed of the game.
Then in some other matches, like the Valencia clash in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, which Barcelona won 7-0, they go to town, killing the second leg off and allowing Lucho to rest some players.
In theory, he shouldn’t start any of the feted front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez in the second leg. In practice, the players’ love of playing and his need to keep them happy may dictate otherwise.
Suarez, at least, stated he would understand the coach dropping him on Wednesday. Per Marca, he said: "We'll understand if the coach rests all three of us in the return leg."
Against Levante, the coach rested Sergio Busquets, with Sergi Roberto coming in as the pivot. Giving players a break here and there may be the way forward for Luis Enrique, though expect him to ring the changes against Valencia.
With Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, Barcelona have fresh blood and more options. Vidal may have been a better bet against Levante than Dani Alves anyway, given the poor performance of the Brazilian. Jose Luis Morales had him on toast down the Catalans’ right flank.
Lucho understands the demands of the schedule and has said many times, here per Sport, that “the players are not machines.”
For large periods of games against Atletico Madrid, Malaga, Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao recently, Barcelona have lacked control. That's what happens if you can't keep up your intensity.
It was the same against Levante, although the valiant performance of the home side, currently bottom of La Liga, should also be noted. Giuseppe Rossi, Deyverson and Morales were all irritations for the visitors, who were lucky to go in at the break with a lead from David Navarro's own goal.
Messi missed training on Monday, per the Mirror's Ed Malyon, and not for the first time recently. Although this may just be for a break, sometimes it’s because he’s feeling a slight problem.
With so many games coming up in the weeks ahead, it’s time for Arda, Aleix, Sergi Roberto, and even Marc Bartra and Munir El Haddadi, to get some minutes.