Last season it started to show that the spark Barca used to have wasn't there anymore. It wasn't dramatic, and maybe not even visible to everyone, but if you looked closely you could see that something was missing. They lost La liga to their biggest enemy Real Madrid by 9 points. They were also eliminated from the Champions League in a nasty game with Chelsea. Despite all this, the biggest loss of the season was the announcement of Josep Guardiola's departure. Guardiola said that he left, because he didn't feel like he had anything to give to the team anymore, that he was tired and incapable of dealing with the pressure of being the manager of Barca. And I'm sure that at least partly it was true. But now that we've seen Barca starting to crumble more and more, I can't help but wonder if Pep noticed something a year ago that is only now starting to become visible for the rest of us.
Last year's disappointments were easily explained. The players had won everything with FC Barcelona and many of them with the Spanish national team as well. And even if you can never win enough, it's natural to lose some of the hunger for success after already winning everything possible to win. Barca has been somewhat unstoppable for years and it feels only natural that the Barca-era has to end at some point. The players are getting older and more tired. And other teams are also starting to find ways to stop the tiki taka-machine.
When the leagues started again last August, FC Barcelona looked as amazing as ever. The players seemed well rested and eager to win everything again. New manager Tito Vilanova seemed to be the perfect choice for Guardiola's successor, it even seemed like he had found a way to fix those things that had started to fall apart last season. Barca was back stronger than ever. Real Madrid's rocky start in the league did no harm to Barca's rise in the league either and within a few months the league already seemed out of reach not only for the reigning champions but to the second placed Atletico Madrid as well. Barca was breaking records and Lionel Messi's individual success made the Catalans look even better.
"This is the year FC Barcelona is going to win everything again." That's what I kept telling my friends, especially the ones that supported Real Madrid, time after time during the games in the first half of the season. And I truly believed in it. Then the news broke that Tito Vilanova's cancer had relapsed. And that was the moment things slowly started to fall apart. Or I don't know the actual moment when things started to go wrong, but that's when it started to become visible.
First a few bad away games, no big deal. FC Barcelona's first defeat in the Spanish league was to Real Sociedad in January. I wasn't exactly happy after that game, but I figured that they had to lose at some point so better it was now in a relatively meaningless match. Nothing was lost with that game. They were still leading the league with a somewhat comfortable gap to Atletico Madrid. Copa del Rey was going well and they were going to face AC Milan in the Champions League, a team they had beat last year and who seemed even weaker this year.
The next game in the league was against Osasuna. Barca won 5-1. A week later they played a 1-1 tie with Valencia. And the next game after that was against Getafe. A clear 6-1 victory for the Catalans. Everything still looked good. Until the defeat to AC Milan.
That game was nothing like the one with Chelsea last year. It wasn't about luck or perfect timing. AC Milan was better, way better than the tired looking FC Barcelona. Before the game everybody said that Milan needed a miracle to beat Barca. Well Barca at their worst and Milan at their best was a combination that led to a clear victory. I don't know if that counts as a miracle, but the mission to stop the unstoppable was accomplished.
There is still another game left at Camp Nou and I really want to believe that Barca is going to be on their a-game and beat Milan. Maybe it's not an impossible task, but a difficult one to say the least. It's not that things like that don't happen in football, because they do and I think that if some team is capable of rising from a 0-2 defeat it's Barca. And I actually believed they could win the game, until last night. 1-3 to Real Madrid. The team that's 16 points behind Barca in the league. A team that's so messed up that the whole football world has been speculating what the hell is wrong with them for months. And then suddenly they humiliate Barca at Camp Nou. What? Seriously, what? How did that happen?
Now FC Barcelona is in a point where something has to be done. Everyone can see when they play that something's just not right. The players seem lost, as if nobody knows what they're doing. Defenders don't defend, attackers don't attack and no one is at the right place at the right time. And Messi is the only one who scores. That amount of pressure is too much, even for him.