Barcelona’s league campaign – and maybe an era – looks like it is over | Sid Lowe

Barcelona’s league campaign – and maybe an era – looks like it is over | Sid Lowe

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onald Koeman spent much of Saturday night just sitting, staring at his feet, which was probably better than looking at his team. Out on the grass before him they were busy bringing any lingering hope of winning the league to an end six months early and in a way so absurd, so stupidly familiar, as to be almost funny – if you’re not their coach. One down through an eighth-minute own goal from Óscar Mingueza, another one from Pedro Alcalá had just brought them level and offered a way back, when it happened again: the moment that gave Cádiz victory, a portrait of Barcelona’s crisis that came as a comic strip.

Jordi Alba took a throw, which he sent back into his box, bouncing awkwardly in front of Clément Lenglet on his weak foot. Stumbling, Lenglet couldn’t control the ball or, for a moment, his feet. He watched it go by and, more alert than any of them despite having been out there just 30 seconds, so did Cádiz substitute Álvaro Negredo, setting off after it. Marc-André ter Stegen swiped at it, sending the ball spinning off his opponent into the six-yard box. Where Negredo gently applied the brakes as Frenkie de Jong slid by like a cartoon character off a cliff, taking Barcelona’s season with him. The goal open, with his first touch Negredo rolled the ball into the net to make it 2-1 and, arms wide, ran to the corner grinning.

“It was one of those days you know you’re going to get chances,” he said afterwards.

It was only the 63rd minute of the 12th week and there was still time, a lot of it, but it was done. The match, the campaign, an era maybe, the whole thing. Sitting on the bench barely moving, there were moments – long, long moments – when Barcelona manager Koeman seemed to sense it, arms folded across his chest, head bowed, powerless. For the sixth time, his team trailed. They had not come back from any of the previous five and although he sent on Trincão and Pjanic, they didn’t come back here either, and never really looked like they would. It is hard to see how they can come back at all. From the position they’re in now no one else has, ever.

Barcelona had shot themselves in the foot, only if they tried that they’d probably miss. “Barcelona commit suicide,” ran the headline in AS. “What a blunder,” lamented the front of Sport. “Fatal errors,” said the cover of El Mundo Deportivo. That’s errors, plural. There have been a lot of them: De Jong’s mistake against Sevilla and his penalty conceded against Getafe; Lenglet’s penalty against Madrid; Neto and Gerard Piqué making a mess at Alavés; Piqué and Ter Stegen doing the same against Atlético; and now this. If there is an Anfield Corner, there may now be a Carranza Throw.

“I can’t explain it,” Koeman said, “you can’t let in a goal like that. We have done quite a few, and it hurts.”

Ronald Koeman watches on from the dugout.

This was, the coach admitted, a “gigantic step backwards in our chances of fighting for the league”. Already beaten four times, this is the worst Barcelona have been after 10 games since 1971. Cádiz are four points ahead of them. They are ninth, closer in points to the relegation zone than the Champions League places. They’re six points behind Madrid, seven behind Villarreal, and 11 behind Real Sociedad, albeit with games in hand. They’re 12 points behind league leaders Atlético Madrid. “Just as we have dropped points, others will too,” the club’s institutional director Guillermo Amor claimed, but there was no conviction in his words and no team has won the league having trailed by so far. There has been a nine-point turn around, an eight, a seven, a six and a five, but never a 12.

“Individual errors are costing us,” Sergio Busquets said. But it’s not just that, it is everything. Which is why it is hard to avoid the feeling that it’s over, that their league season is finished, except maybe a fight for the top four. It’s not just that the gap is big; it is that the team is bad and the club worse, the slow decline accelerating. There is an inescapable sense of dysfunction and disintegration at every level, an institutional crisis with no immediate solution, not even with presidential elections in January. Whoever comes in has a huge task ahead of them and no resources with which to undertake it.

Barcelona came into Saturday’s game having just listened to their interim president – whose job it is to oversee elections and pretty much nothing else – say that there is no money, the roof is falling in at the stadium, and it’s all they can do to stay afloat until June. They heard him say it would have been better to have sold Messi in the summer, which is what Messi wanted but was denied. He certainly didn’t want this, none of them did.

Messi stands in the midst of the rubble, responsibility continuing to be thrust upon a man who didn’t plan to be there at all and is 34 soon, still carrying that weight, conditioning everything. On Saturday, he took 10 shots and didn’t score, for the fourth time this season. He has scored four goals away in 2020, none of them decisive. Barcelona have won only half of their away games since Anfield. In this context he is another problem, just one of many. It’s difficult to see anything that’s not a problem right now. Look at those defeats and the dropped points and, for all the individual errors, you’ll struggle to find one where Barcelona deserved much more.

There are injuries, important ones: Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Ansu Fati, and now Ousmane Dembélé again. The level of the squad has declined. And if this is a transitional season, it’s not clear what they’re transitioning towards. In the summer, the players that left were those they could find places for, not necessarily those they needed to release. The clear-out was incomplete, the culture largely unchanged. Pjanic came to balance the books, not the midfield. Only Sergiño Dest came on Koeman’s say so. On Saturday he, the only player offering width, was withdrawn. Cádiz, in their coach’s words, set up a “handball” game: Barcelona went from side to side in front of their defence but never through it, nor round it.

Koeman complained of a lack of attitude: no aggression, no pace, no confidence at the back. It is a recurring theme. After one game, an opponent could not believe what he had seen, saying Barcelona had walked. More worrying might be that when they do try, it’s no guarantee either – although results in Europe make all this harder to explain. Structurally, it does not convince. This 4-2-3-1, with its overload of No 10s, exposes the middle two and squeezes the men ahead of them, everyone turning inside into heavy traffic, the same spaces occupied by many footballers largely getting in each other’s way. Chase a result and it gets even more crowded, every attacker thrown on. There’s a predictability to their play, sterile and vulnerable.

The clearest analysis came from Álvaro Cervera, the Cádiz coach who had defeated them. “I don’t want to act smarter than anyone, and we had good luck, but if you analyse Barcelona a little, they’re a team of one-twos, short passes,” he told Cadena Ser. “Messi comes deep. When they get wide, they bring it back again. You get the typical move from Messi in off the right and Jordi Alba appears on the left. So, [you] close the middle, leave the wings free. We had the good ‘luck’ that Dembélé didn’t come on, or any pure wingers. Dembélé is one of the few that gets to the by-line, but you see Coutinho and it’s a ‘relief’: you have the problem of shot from the edge of the area, but it’s easier to defend.

“Messi was more participative than other occasions; I could see his desire to win. He came deep for the ball, made them play, he didn’t look bad. When I called players over to have a word, most the instructions I gave them were about Messi,” Cervera continued. “When Dest went off, it surprised me: he’s quick, incisive. When they put Trincão on we knew they would come inside even more. We knew we had a chance. Barcelona need the ball, we don’t.”

Cádiz players and management come together after the game.

And so it proved once more. If Barcelona had done it again, so had Cádiz. Only three teams have spent their entire history in the first division: Athletic, Madrid and Barcelona. In the first 12 weeks, having returned after 14 years away, Cádiz have beaten them all. They’re the first newly-promoted team ever to defeat Madrid and Barcelona in the first half of the campaign. They beat Madrid with 26% of possession, Barcelona with 18%, and deservedly so. The team with the smallest budget in primera stand fifth. Not that they’re getting carried away. “The objective is survival,” Cervera insisted, “so we can come back and play this game again and with our fans there next time.”

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Athletic Bilbao 0-2 Celta Vigo, Cádiz 2-1 Barcelona, Atlético Madrid 2-0 Real Valladolid, Sevilla 0-1 Real Madrid, Levante 3-0 Getafe, Alavés 0-0 Real Sociedad, Villarreal 0-0 Elche, Osasuna 0-2 Real Betis, Granada 3-3 Huesca.

Photograph: Javier Barbancho/X02265

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