Well, that was the week from hell for Barcelona. Seven La Liga points dropped in a week. SEVEN! Starting with Girona, followed by an insipid performance and defeat midweek against Leganés, rounded off with a better performance yet more dropped points at Camp Nou against Athletic Bilbao. The Blaugrana blues are playing increasingly longer and louder. More squad rotation, Messi and Busquets on the bench, a Pique headache and formation woes. Ernesto Valverde has problems.
I have a degree of sympathy with Ernesto Valverde when it comes to squad rotation, in some quarters of the internet there’s some particularly vitriolic hate for his lack of rotation last season, now the same critics are accusing him of over-rotation, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Against Athletic, out went Vermaelen, Umtiti, Busquets, and Messi. In came Lenglet, Alba, Vidal, and Suarez. Did benching the two most important players in the “Gala XI” work? Not entirely.
Barça started the game… okay. Starting in what looked like a traditional 4-3-3. The bite and work rate of Vidal in midfield and Sergi Roberto channelling his inner Sergi Busquets started fairly well. Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez showing signs of rediscovering the relationship they forged in the EPL for Liverpool. Athletic Bilbao also started well, for a club that hasn’t taken a point at Camp Nou since 2003, they started knowing they could exploit the frailty that had crept into the game of the home side in recent weeks. Inaki Williams being afforded too many opportunities to run at an increasingly slow Pique was a recipe for disaster. Just before half-time, Bilbao sprang the Barça offside trap which allowed Susaeta to cross for Oscar de Marcos to smartly finish first time past Ter Stegen.
I say Bilbao sprang the offside trap, realistically they didn’t. Gerard Pique was so woefully out of position there was no trap to spring. Gerard Pique has been arguably at fault for the five goals FCB have conceded this week. Maybe Gerard Pique’s focus is with his new job as a tennis administrator, if he’s applying himself to that in the same way he’s applying himself to his defensive duties then tennis better be wary of a spectacular collapse. If anyone is going to be rotated out against Valencia next week, it better be him.
On to the second half, the doom and gloom around Camp Nou was slightly lifted with the introductions of both Sergio Busquets, who midweek extended his contract to stay with Barcelona through to 2023, and the greatest player of all time Lionel Messi. I don’t need to give Messi a big build up, we all know his greatness. In a week where he was very surprisingly overlooked by a FIFA awards ceremony to crown “The Best” player in Europe for the previous year, (no I don’t know why he wasn’t nominated despite him being pivotal in his team winning a domestic double and being the leading scorer in Europe) and even more surprisingly starting the match on the bench, he came on and changed the match.
From his introduction on the 55th minute, he hit the woodwork, which incidentally FCB have hit the woodwork eight times in seven matches, he assisted Munir for the equalising goal and almost dragged his team back from the brink to all claim the win. Almost. The impact of Messi and Busquets can’t be underestimated, Ivan Rakitic had turned in one of the worst displays he’s ever had in the jersey of FC Barcelona, Sergi Roberto was coping admirably in the Busquets role before he picked up an injury which will keep him out of this weeks Champions League tie at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur, but neither player could exhibit anything close to the required standard of game management and degree of control needed in central midfield that Sergi Busquets brings.
It was an improved performance from midweek but it wasn’t a solid enough foundation to give the degree of confidence to take us into the most difficult spell of fixtures we will face all season, starting with the CL fixture against Spurs and then one of the toughest away trips in La Liga to play Valencia at the Mestalla on Sunday. With our rivals also dropping points in La Liga this weekend, let’s hope Valverde and the Blaugrana aren’t singing the blues for much longer.