6th May 2016.
It's been a long and bizarre season at Camp Nou. What started off looking as a sure-footed march toward a second consecutive treble has ended up an inconsistent season where there's a non-zero chance that Barca won't win a single title. Yet, even with just two games left on the schedule before the end of the 2015/16 La Liga campaign, the Catalan football club remain formidable opponents and legitimate title contenders. A team that just a few weeks ago seemed to be imploding is making a show of their big comeback. They've become the underdogs in their own frontrunner story.
A Brief Look Back
To understand the weird array of contradictions that has defined Barcelona's 2015/16 season, we need to look back at the very start of it. Barca surged into the season as the clear frontrunners for both the Champions League and the La Liga. They'd played one of the best seasons on record in 2014/15, clinching the treble and doing it with one of the greatest frontlines in soccer history: Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar. Four wins to start the La Liga season seemed to put the football club on the course to repeat the spectacle for the second year running. Even a draw in Barca's first Champions League match-a 1-1 stalemate with Roma-did little to diminish the high hopes of the club's fans.
Then, in mid-September, Barcelona's carefully constructed house of cards began to fall. On September 23rd, they lost their first La Liga match of the season (they lost big, falling 1-4 to Celta Vigo). Just a few days later, during a September 26th match against Las Palmas, the unthinkable happened: Lionel Messi left the pitch 10 minutes in with a knee injury. The great Leo wouldn't play again until November 21st, leaving Barca without their greatest asset. Worse, thanks to Barcelona's 2015 transfer ban, the club had a thin lineup that soccer pundits weren't quite sure could compensate for Messi's absence. Suddenly, Barcelona's chances of defending their treble looked a lot more suspect.
Despite Messi's absence, though, Barcelona didn't fall apart. They won their first post-injury match-a key Champions League battle with Bayer Leverkusen-and despite an October 3rd loss at Sevilla, they quickly roared back to life in the La Liga. Indeed, starting with a 5-2 win over Rayo Vallecano on October 18th, Barca looked superhuman. For the next five domestic league matches, the team would score 16 goals and only concede one. Suarez, in particular, was unstoppable, scoring in almost every match.
The Undefeated Streak Breaks
Barcelona didn't win every game after their key Rayo Vallecano victory. On the contrary, the soccer club actually stumbled a bit when Messi came back into the picture, settling for three draws in December (two La Liga matches and one UCL fixture) and another in their first match of the New Year (a 0-0 away game against Espanyol).
However, while Barcelona did concede a few draws, their Rayo Vallecano win on October 3rd started a monstrous undefeated streak that lasted 39 matches across all competitions. In what would have been the 40th match of their undefeated streak, though, Barcelona finally ran into trouble. On April 2nd, Barca hosted Real Madrid and lost 1-2.
The outcome was a surprising one for several reasons-not least because Barcelona had won the season's first incarnation of El Clasico by a brutal 4-0 margin. By all accounts, Barca should have been able to win the game. They dominated two-thirds of the possession and scored first, on a 56-minute attempt from Pique. However, Real Madrid managed to keep Messi, Suarez, and Neymar from scoring-no small feat-and scored a pair of goals in the final half-hour to claim victory.
Luis Enrique's Fatal Error
El Clasico might have yielded Barcelona's first loss in half a year, but most pundits would actually look to the game before as the one that broke the football club's momentum. Facing off against Villarreal in a March 20th La Liga game, Barcelona looked secure. They'd taken a commanding lead in the first half with goals from Rakitic and Neymar and were controlling the ball well. They should have been able to formulate a win.
So what went wrong? The Daily Mail contends that Luis Enrique shot himself in the foot because he was worried about Barcelona's upcoming schedule of games. In addition to El Clasico, Barcelona was also set to face Atletico Madrid in two legs of the Champions League. With those three high-stakes matches on the schedule for the upcoming weeks, Enrique pulled Gerard Pique, his best defender, in the 55th minute of the Villarreal match. The mistake could prove to haunt the manager for months or years to come.
Two minutes after Pique left the game, Villarreal broke through Barca's defense to score a goal. Just six minutes after that, Jeremy Mathieu bungled the ball and scored an own goal. The worst part? Mathieu had been Pique's substitute.
Barcelona ended up drawing that match 2-2 with Villarreal, a shocking momentum killer that sent the club into an international break with a bad taste still lingering. It didn't help that the international break saw all three of Barcelona's stars going back to their home countries to play in the South American World Cup Qualifiers (whereas all of Real Madrid's big stars got to rest). In other words, while Barcelona lost El Clasico, and while Messi, Neymar, and Suarez all went scoreless in the game, it was arguably their own exhaustion, and not a superior Vikings team, that served up the defeat.
Still, the loss-combined with the disappointing Villarreal draw-was enough to take a wrecking ball to Barcelona's momentum and confidence. They managed a win against Atletico in their first UCL quarterfinal match, thanks solely to Luis Suarez and his brace of second-half goals. However, they lost their next two La Liga matches (to Real Sociedad and Valencia, respectively) and got shut out in the second leg against Atletico Madrid.
The Comeback Phase
The string of losses destroyed Barcelona's chances of defending their Champions League title and demolished the cushy lead they'd built for themselves in the La Liga. With Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid knocking on the door, the question was whether or not Luis Enrique's soccer squad would continue to surrender.
Luckily for Barcelona fans, though, the club seems to have found a second wind in the past few weeks. On April 20th, they demolished Deportivo La Coruna 8-0-a major victory that seems to have helped the team get some spring back in their step.
As he has been throughout this season, Suarez was the clear MVP of the match, scoring four of the goals and assisting with three of the others. However, the match also saw Neymar scoring his first goal in a month (his last had come during the Villarreal match) and gave Messi his second goal in two games (he's broken his worst scoring slump in half a decade in Barcelona's previous match, against Valencia).
A week later, the story was nearly identical: a 6-0 win for Barcelona, this time against Sporting Gijon, four goals for Suarez, and one point each for Neymar and Messi. As for this past weekend, the victory wasn't quite as precipitous-Barca beat Real Betis 2-0 in a Saturday away match-but it was enough to keep the football club at the top of the La Liga standings.
With just two games left, Barcelona leads the way in the Spanish top-flight with 85 points and a goal difference of +75. Their last two games should yield easy wins: they'll play Espanyol and Granada to close out their season, teams currently ranked 15th and 18th, respectively. Barring another complete collapse of form, Barca will end the season with 91 points-three points behind where they ended the 2014/15 campaign.
Even if Barcelona are destined to have an inferior season this year compared to what they did last year, though, they still probably can't be caught for the La Liga title. Atletico Madrid are also sitting at 85 points but are so far behind in goal difference (+44) that they need Barcelona to lose or draw a game to break the tie. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have comparable goal difference to Barcelona (+73) but are one point behind.
Perhaps the most notable factor at play here is that, no matter what happens for Barcelona, Lionel Messi will not be the club's most valuable player. Messi has lead Barca in scoring six years in a row, but this season, Luis Suarez will take that honor. Suarez has 34 goals this season as of the Real Betis match, compared to Messi's 25. (Neymar has 23.) With a bit of luck, Suarez could also beat Cristiano Ronaldo out as the top scorer in the entire La Liga. Right now, Ronaldo has 31 goals.
Will Barcelona win their 24th La Liga title? Is Suarez on his way to a Ballon d'Or? Only time will tell on both accounts, but we can't wait to see the rest of the season play out.
FC Barcelona: Imploding or Making a Comeback?
6th May 2016.