If you want to know how things are going at Barcelona right about now, consider that not even a freakish own goal and a feather-light penalty, converted by Lionel Messi for his 700th career goal …
… produced sufficient good luck to keep the Catalans in the La Liga title race.
Because Barcelona also gave up two penalty kicks of its own to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday. Saul Niguez converted them to ensure a 2-2 tie that puts the Blaugrana in deep trouble.
Before second-place Barca spilled its first points on home soil this calendar year, Real Madrid already held a two-point lead atop La Liga. Now it also has a game in hand. A home win against fifth-placed Getafe on Thursday — a tricky but manageable assignment — and Real’s lead will grow to four points with just five games to spare. Considering Barca’s failure to win in three of its last four games, and Real’s five straight wins since the restart after the pause for the pandemic, that might well sew up the title.
A miracle comeback feels unlikely. The narratives coming out of the Camp Nou are not positive. The catastrophic transfer policy of the last half decade has finally come home to roost. The club is having its worst season, statistically, since the 2007-08 campaign. Messi is less productive under Quique Setien than any manager since Frank Rijkaard at the very start of his career.
Unsurprisingly at a club controlled largely by its senior players, there is talk of a rift between Setien and Messi and the other locker room veterans. This has reportedly ensured that, following Barcelona’s first midseason manager firing since 2003 when Ernesto Valverde was let go on Jan. 13, Setien will follow him out the door after just half a season in charge when the campaign wraps up.
This Barca campaign was going fine, save for an early Copa del Rey elimination and the managerial switch, until COVID-19 interrupted the season. At first, it seemed like it could be a blessing, offering injured striker Luis Suarez time to recover from a serious injury and solving the club’s striker crisis. But when the schedule got hard, Barca stumbled in ties with Sevilla and Celta Vigo and was fortunate to beat Athletic Bilbao at home. If Setien’s side was going to salvage this season, Barca needed all three points against third-place Atletico.
But an early Yannick Carrasco free kick from a wide position for Atletico, which was touched by nobody and zipped narrowly wide of the far post, was an ominous portent. Nonetheless, Diego Costa nutmegged himself for an odd own goal off the inside of his thigh from a Messi corner in the 12th minute to put Barca ahead.
Three minutes later, Carrasco scampered up the left, cut inside Arturo Vidal and was chopped down. Barcelona keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved Diego Costa’s poorly-placed kick, but the video assistant referee caught ter Stegen moving off his line prematurely.
Niguez converted the re-take.
Barca, predictably, had lots of the ball but lacked cutting edge. Its buildup was ponderous. As so often in recent contests against Atletico, Barcelona had no real idea of how to break the lines erected by Diego Simeone’s defensive specialists.
A second break befell Barca when Nelson Semedo fell by the lightest of contact with Felipe. And Messi converted audaciously with a slowly-chipped penalty kick in the 48th minute for that 700th competitive goal at the senior level. He joins Josef Bican, Romário, Pelé, Ferenc Puskás, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gerd Müller as the only players with 700 goals for club and country.
But Atletico equalized a second time, through another soft call and penalty that Niguez only just slipped through ter Stegen’s extended fingers. It counted just the same in a game without a goal scored from the run of play — for the correct team, anyway.
Messi’s big day was overshadowed. Just as Messi’s ongoing heroics, having just turned 33, have been obscured by the slow decline of the team surrounding him. This time around, it will likely cost him an 11th La Liga title in 16 years.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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