Robbie Dunne reports from Spain as Barca suffer a defeat that may well have ended their title hopes
The league was back in Barcelona’s hands for the guts of two hours before Malaga exploited Luis Enrique’s side and turned them over at La Rosaleda for the first time in well over a decade.
It was 5-1 to the home side back on December 3rd 2003 and in ways, Malaga’s victory over Luis Enrique’s side could have been worse had Adalberto Peñaranda's clearly onside goal been allowed or Javier Mascherano’s foul on Pablo Fornals - which was inside the box - been given as a penalty. That said, Barcelona’s created plenty only for Carlos Kameni to turn into a human wall blocking shots from all-comers.
Malaga, relegation contenders as little as six days ago turned into world beaters. Barcelona turned to frustration and Neymar, who so often plays on the edge, allowed that frustration to boil over with a red card before he applauded the fourth official as he left the field, which could mean another match ban for his sarcastic gesture... and which means a potential absence from El Clasico in two weeks time.
The Brazilian’s absence from any team is a huge loss but in a well-built squad that has Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, it should not be fatal. Barcelona’s business in the summer was so poor, that they are left without options to the point that injury to Rafinha might have thrown their season into despair.
Arda Turan has been a disappointment, Barca’s policy of buying the best players available opposed to either nurturing from within or waiting for the right player to arrive sees them stuck with Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes in what looks increasingly like fitting square pegs into round holes.
And the problem with their problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a quick fix.
In a world of increasing disparity between the elite from the rest, there seems to be a growing fairness amongst Spain's Top Two and everyone else. Neither Barca or Real Madrid have convinced at all this season. With Champions League football looming, the only Spanish team you would put money on making the semi finals with a shred of confidence is Atletico Madrid. If it wasn’t for their poor start, a failed attempt at changing their style and a bad patch in front of goal for Griezmann around the middle of the season, they might be further up the league and still competing domestically.
The more you watch La Liga and Real Madrid and Barcelona, however, the more you realise that here are two teams that are struggling with an identity crisis. Against Malaga, there was no way that Barcelona were going to beat them with their system. Like in the days of, say, Pep Guardiola when so often there were systematic victories, now it seems like if Suarez or Messi have an off day, Barcelona will not be able to beat their opponents.
Lucky for them that those days are few and far between, but they do happen, and Malaga frustrated them to the point where one of those off days has resulted in them possibly conceding the title to Real Madrid for the first time in five years.
For Real Madrid, it is the same reliance on individual brilliance instead of any innovative tactics imparted from the bench. Watching the derby at the weekend, despite Real Madrid’s dominance, they still looked fragile at times and when Atletico put the pressure on, they were left wanting. Five more minutes in that game, and if Atletico needed a win, you get the sense that they might have been able to grab a winner.
The league is Real Madrid’s to lose now and they will have to make a proper dog’s dinner of it in order to mess it up. Barcelona, however, really need to think seriously about their next hire and recruitment from both sides in the summer becomes crucial.
Carlos Unzue, one of the favourites to take over at the Camp Nou, has become entwined with Barcelona’s underachieving this year. Taking over at Barcelona is a dream job for Unzue, who has not been shy about hinting that he would love to succeed the current manager but it will take someone with huge experience to overhaul a squad that looks like it could be on it’s last legs.
Andres Iniesta’s absences are inexplicable, as he only plays in cameos now, or else the odd start in very big games. More importantly, they have nobody to replace him. Jeremy Mathieu is finished at Barcelona after a mistake for the first goal against Malaga and some poor showings before that game against sides who could not finish their chances. Meanwhile, Sergio Busquets may have lost a step and Barca’s midfield, if it were a software program, you would say has too many bugs in it to ever function for its purpose.
Messi and Suarez and Neymar will keep them in most games but at some point, Barcelona need to overhaul their squad and build a functional team that operates with a system the works when their best players don’t bring their A games.