Just a couple of months ago, an ‘invincible’ Barcelona team strode into the Emirates for a Champions League second round fixture against Arsenal. Despite the hosts creating several gilt-edged chances, they were blown away by the trio now affectionately known as ‘MSN’. A sweeping counter attack in the 70th minute, with Suarez and Neymar combining to lay the ball on a plate for Lionel Messi to score, displayed just how dazzling this side could be. This instance was not a unique one, but a case of a group of players capable of simply turning on the style when required.
Indeed, the brilliance of signors Messi, Suarez and Neymar this season has seen them amass an incredible tally of 70 La Liga goals between them, not to mention their exploits in the various Cup competitions Barca have been so prominent in. This attacking prowess, complemented by a solid defence marshalled by Gerard Pique, and possibly the world’s best midfield in Rakitic, Busquets and Iniesta, ensured that Barcelona were again on course to become the all-conquering kings of Europe.
That was until Cristiano Ronaldo decided to show up at the Nou Camp and thwart the Catalan giants’ voyage, helping Real Madrid to a 2-1 victory at the beginning of April. Since then, the unstoppable Barcelona have become a slightly underwhelming Barcelona, and in the process of doing so, they have exited the Champions League and spurned a nine-point lead at the top of La Liga.
Prior to this, Luis Enrique’s team had gone 39 games unbeaten in all competitions. Throughout this period, they were nothing short of majestic, drawing comparisons to probably the best team I ever witnessed, the Barcelona of Guardiola: the short, sharp passing exchanges; the relentless desire to win the ball from their opponents; the flowing nature of their play. Arguably, the greatest team there has ever been.
Their defeat to Real Madrid appeared to have shaken an immovable object. Cracks have begun to show in what had been a concrete foundation of this force. Their defeat to Valencia last weekend has left Luis Enrique’s team of superstars looking vulnerable. Four defeats in five games has given the Catalans their worst run in years. Atletico and Real are waiting in the wings for another slip-up. Atletico and Real are both still on course for Champions League glory.
The question remains though – were Barcelona being overhyped this whole time? Was the unstoppable force of ‘MSN’ really all that dominating? After all, they have scored just one more goal in La Liga than the so –called ‘fractured’ strike-force of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale. Much to Ronaldo’s disgust at the lack of commendation towards himself and his team-mates, his belief of there being no need for a friendship off the pitch, just as long as the business is being done on the pitch, may be one that is perhaps driving himself and his team on further.
Should this poor run of form continue, ultimately leading to Barcelona losing top spot in La Liga, who is to blame? Is it the Luis Enrique? Is it their misfiring strike-force? Is it the now-unsteady back four?
The notion of being invincible should not enter the world of football. Maintaining the highest standard of performance, week-in, week-out, is extremely difficult over the course of a season. If it is the case that Barcelona cannot pull themselves from such a rut, and their nearest challengers continue their form, then undoubtedly this, at times irresistible, side will be left to wonder what exactly went wrong.