To say Barcelona were tactically naïve during their 2-0 Champions League return-leg defeat to Atletico Madrid at Vicente Calderon would be grossly disrespectful to Diego Simeone and his terrific bunch. To call it an upset would be grotesque. Atleti have earned every bit of their 3-2 aggregate win over a side that defines football aristocracy. It’s unfortunate that there’s a certain amount of negativity over the result. It’s even more painful that the Catalans have been subjected to some relentless diatribes from a section of the football world after their early exit from the game’s biggest competition. Only the second time in eight years Barcelona failed to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Spanish daily El Mundo led the charge. “They have a coach without a Plan B and are lacking the magic of a messiah. The poor embraced faith to scatter the rich, Barca, who collapsed at the Calderon,” the paper wrote. Argentine publication Ole laid into Lionel Messi for not knowing “how to deal with the home team”. “A Barcelona without recourse have tumbled out of the Champions League,” said Mundo Deportivo. Barcelona, indeed, have one of the most exalted forward lines in the history of the game. There’s a perception that an attacking trinity of Messi (priceless), Neymar (57.1 million euros) and Luis Suarez (82 million euros) should make the team infallible. But sport doesn’t work that way. Bad patch is an integral part of it and Barcelona have been going through one at the moment, as their La Liga losses to Real Sociedad and Real Madrid and this Champions League setback would attest. They lost to Atleti because their rivals were far better on the night, when collective resolve trumped individual brilliance. Simeone outwitted his counterpart Luis Enrique. This is the overwhelming beauty of the sport; its unpredictability.
Somehow, some people have had a tendency to gloat over every Barcelona failure. This club has set the standards for beautiful football over the past eight-odd years and achieved unparalleled success. Still, reaction from some quarters to every Barcelona defeat would hint at a crisis. Jealousy could be a reason and it’s deplorable. Barcelona were done in by Cristiano Ronaldo’s genius in the return-leg El Clasico. They couldn’t match Atleti’s team game in the Champions League quarter-finals. Stand up for the Portuguese master. Applaud Atleti’s brilliance. Rather than groaning over Barcelona’s disappeared hopes of lifting back-to-back Champions League titles, celebrate their rivals’ march to the last four. The way Atleti have been playing under Simeone for the last few years, it would be fantastic to see them win their first-ever European Cup in Milan on May 28. Simeone works on peanuts and makes champions out of the ordinary. He is the real special one.
Yes, Barcelona have spent huge to be on top. But La Masia (the club’s youth academy) has always remained central to their project. Also, cash splurge in the transfer market doesn’t guarantee success. Manchester United have spent over £250 million under Louis van Gaal and slumped into a terminal decline. Only three seasons after lifting their 20th Premier League title, the self-styled biggest club in the world has become an also-ran. Leicester City now lead the Premier League table followed by Tottenham Hotspur. They have made rapid progress and rolled over the nouveau riche, thriving in exciting young talent and right managerial appointments.
Only last season, Enrique had presided over a treble-winning campaign at Camp Nou. He can’t become a bad coach overnight. Barcelona still top La Liga with 76 points from 32 matches. They are firmly in Copa del Rey. Double is still very achievable.
Enrique has absorbed criticism with the utmost dignity. “I’m 99.9% to blame, no 100. That’s why I’m the coach, the most responsible. We all have to improve. It is clear that we are not in our best form, especially if you consider how we were playing before, but we need to lift ourselves. I congratulate Atletico Madrid, they were better than us.
“We have to stay calm and think that we still have two competitions where we are in the running. Everyone can choose the explanation. To give mine I have to analyse the performance. It is not our best time, but it is not the time to be nervous,” said Enrique. You expect a Barcelona manager to put things in perspective. This is a club that revels in Johan Cruyff’s ethos. All his successors have had a clear brief of perpetuating that.
Enrique would be under pressure if Barcelona finish trophy-less this term. It would be worse if Real Madrid go on to win the Champions League. The world’s most politically-influenced football rivalry might eventually decide Enrique’s future. But Josep Maria Bartomeu (club president) and his board, and also Barcelona’s millions of fans worldwide, must remember that the loss to Atleti was the club’s first knockout failure under Enrique in a cup competition after 13 straight victories. Even in defeat, this club is resplendent. Allow them to fail occasionally; for football’s sake.