It was the 10th of April. It was that time of the year. The stage was set for an early kickoff, with both Barcelona and Real Madrid aware of the crucial stakes in this particular game. Barcelona were placed two points ahead of Real Madrid, and a victory in this fixture was widely going to be considered as La Liga favourites, given the floundering nature of league leaders Atletico Madrid.
Yet, Barça lost, adding yet another game to their growing list of poor performances against big teams. In a 2-1 victory at home, Madrid completely outdid the Catalans. The writing was in the stars: Real Madrid win a second league title in a row!
But, as we have seen all throughout the league season, there was yet another twist to come. Barça won their next two games against Getafe and Villarreal, while Madrid — having played an extra game — won one and drew two out of their next three games. Atleti didn’t enjoy much luck either, having won two, drawn one, and lost two of their last fixtures.
Such results set the stage perfectly for the Garnet and the Blue. Yet to play matchday 33, the Blaugranas had the perfect opportunity to go top of the league with a win against Granada since Atleti had just come off a 1-2 loss against Athletic Bilbao.
Collapse against Granada
Unfortunately, as has been the case all season, Barça floundered. Losing their first-ever home game against Granada, Ronald Koeman’s men put up a poor display, set up by abysmal second-half tactics. With much space behind the midfield and defensive lines, Granada needed not much more than the 18% possession they were afforded to swiftly dent Barça’s title hopes.
This result took the Catalans from having the opportunity of topping the league to right back down in 3rd place. With 71 points, Barça are level with Madrid, behind only due to a worse head-to-head record.
How can Barça still win La Liga?
However, such a result and blow for the team leaves the question-begging: Can Barça still win the league?
Frankly, yes. Barça can absolutely still win the league. But misguided attempts at optimism and macro-level thinking are not the keys to accomplishing such a difficult task. Firstly, we must hope that Los Blancos end up dropping more points, which may be likely given their robust schedule, against Chelsea, Sevilla, Granada, Bilbao, and Villarreal.
Secondly, now is no time for rotation, as was proven in the game last night. With only five remaining games, trying to see how Samuel Umtiti will perform or replacing Sergiono Dest with the dreadful Sergi Roberto are appalling decisions and will perhaps only work to hurt Barça’s title hopes further.
The club must seek to deploy Ronald Araujo, as he brings immense physicality and solidarity in what has largely been a troubled defensive backline for the whole season. The Uruguayan makes it very difficult for the backline to be penetrated, offering several defensive skills. In addition, it would be wise to rely on a blazing-hot Oscar Mingueza and an in form Clement Lenglet.
While Gerard Piqué has enjoyed some good moments while fit, his marking was seemingly poor against Granada; perhaps Koeman can considering giving preference to Araujo in the centre of defence. Right now, it is no time for slip ups in defence, for all that hard work in offence and midfield seems wasted when games such as the one against the Nazaríes are lost.
Barça must dominate all aspects of the game: every square inch of the football field as well as the complex structures of the mind. If there isn’t an equalled solidarity in both the mental and physical departments, it will be complicated for the Catalans to see out the toughest stretch of the season.
Mentality is key
Crucial and challenging games such as Atletico Madrid and Valencia call for more than just tactical brilliance, which the Blaugranas usually have in abundance. There have been cases where the team has come back from difficult circumstances this season, like against Sevilla and Real Betis.
Barça must draw from this same energy, unwilling and unrelenting. Energy, mindset, and determination will go a long way to serve a team that is already filled with unparalleled quality. After all, the Catalans are far ahead of the competition in Expected Points in La Liga. Coming in with 68.54 xPTS, they are 6.8 ahead of Real and 10.11 ahead of Los Rojiblancos.
This means that in terms of performance, Barça are far ahead of the competition. With 3.2 big chances per game, the Catalans are much more threatening than the likes of Los Vikingos, who create 2.5 per game, or Atleti, who have 2.2. The Blaugranas also have the most goals scored and the best goal difference in the league.
Therefore, it really seems that the top spot belongs to the Catalans. So, if Barça really are performing better than everyone else, why aren’t they first? Simply because Lionel Messi and co. have crumbled in several big moments of the league season — both the Clasicos, the fixture against Atletico, and the most recent game against Granada where the top spot was up for grabs.
The issue seems to be more around mentality rather than inadequacy in performance. What is the point of having the quality and tactics to create 14 chances in the EL Clasico if those chances lead to nothing? That is why Koeman’s men must step to the task at hand, one moment at a time.
Not only should each match be counted as a final, as Antoine Griezmann said after the game against Villarreal: “We have six games left – six finals.” But each minute must be thought of as a final. There must not be any room for a lapse in judgement or loss of concentration as there was against Granada.
It is just as important that Koeman gets his tactics right as it is the players keep their mentality and work rate at their very best during these remaining five games. Luckily, Barça have found a winning formula in the short term with the 3-5-2; however, this formula must be utilised by a determined, cohesive force of 11 players out on the field. No amount of coaching or tactical breakdowns can instil determination. And in this final stretch, the latter is required in heaps if Barça are to win the league.
With difficult fixtures coming up against Valencia and Atletico Madrid, Barça must remain perfect. Madrid will likely drop points against Sevilla, Bilbao, or Villarreal. Therefore, within a single match day, the race can be back in the Blaugranas’ hands. Without regard to their opposition’s league chances, Barça must remain determined and at their brilliant best to win the league.
Winning the league will be difficult, very difficult. But is it impossible? Absolutely not.