Cristiano Ronaldo came up huge when his team needed him this week, scoring a hat trick to overturn a 2-0 deficit and lead his team to the Champions League semifinals. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi? Not so much.
The Argentine ace put in another lackluster performance this week as his Barça side was knocked out of the Champions League quarterfinals by Atletico Madrid for the second time in three seasons. Messi failed to find the back of the net for the fifth game in a row and is currently in the midst of his longest goal-less spell for more than five years.
His best chances in the 2-0 loss to Atleti – a pair of free kicks – failed to even hit the target. But it’s not just Messi who’s been coming up short for Barcelona lately; his counterparts in the attacking trio known as the ‘MSN,’ Neymar and Luis Suarez, have also gone off the boil. Atleti defender, Juanfran basically had Neymar in his pocket the entire 90 minutes and the Brazilian was lucky not to have been sent off when his frustration got the better of him and he kicked out at the Spanish right back.
Suarez, who had been so effective in the first leg against Atletico, finding the equalizer and then giving Barça a 2-1 lead, was also totally ineffectual at the Calderon Wednesday. The Uruguayan striker barely registered a presence in the first act before eventually coming alive in the final third of the game. But his efforts proved too little too late and he, too, was lucky to escape a sending off.
The popular narrative has it this Barcelona team – and the MSN in particular – came back from the latest international break exhausted. That may be part of it, but there were worrying signs before that such as the draw with Villarreal in which Barça let slip a 2-0 lead to finish 2-2.
The truth is, this team has been playing an average of two or more matches a week for the better part of nine months now. Manager Luis Enrique’s rotation system seemed to be working until a few weeks ago but suddenly his team looks exhausted.
Barça may also be paying the price for the lack of depth they have in key positions and some high profile signings that haven’t quite panned out. During the January transfer window, there was talk of signing a striker in order to allow for some rotation up top. Well, it didn’t happen and now the MSN look completely sapped.
Meanwhile, the players they brought in during January has failed to make an impact. Arda Turan, although decent when introduced as a sub against his former team on Wednesday, has been nowhere near the heights he hit during his time in an Atletico jersey. Aleix Vidal is out with an injury but has largely been an indifferent presence in the 14 appearances he has made this season. Two weeks ago, Barcelona was considered favorites to win the Champions League and were the runaway leaders in the La Liga title race. Now, the Catalans find themselves knocked out of Europe and sitting on a precarious three-point lead atop the table in Spain. Enrique needs to find a way to right the ship quickly, or this Barça team that was being spoken of in hushed whispers as potentially the best club side ever a short time ago, runs the risk of ending the season trophy-less.
Barcelona will resume their La Liga title defense this weekend when they welcome Valencia to the Camp Nou.