The defending Liga champions have been in poor form throughout 2014 and, after a meek defeat at Valladolid, the title will now be contested by the teams from Madrid
By Peter Staunton
Last weekend the Spanish title race seemed to have swung decisively back in the favour of Barcelona. A win at home against Almeria as routine as could be expected was preceded by a draw in the Madrid derby that did neither Real nor Atletico any favours. It's a very different picture this weekend as Barca, in as meek a fashion imaginable, had their grip on La Liga's trophy loosened as a result of a 1-0 defeat by Real Valladolid.
This was not a Liga dark-horse they were visiting; this was as close to a guaranteed three points for Barcelona as exists in the Spanish top flight. Eight straight wins against Valladolid came before this fatal blunder at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla, where they won 3-1 last season. But Barcelona never looked likely to take the full share of the points from the first whistle to last as Juan Ignacio Martinez's expertly drilled outfit not only threw Barca's title charge off course but also gave themselves a vigorous boost in their quest for survival.
For Valladolid are clinging to life in the Primera Division - that is the extent of their ambition. This is a side who had previously won only four matches all season in league competition and had won only one of their previous 10. But it was Barcelona and not the hosts who played like relegation fodder.
|MATCH FACTS | Valladolid 1-0 Barca
Barca could scarcely find their way behind Jesus Rueda and Stefan Mitrovic in the centre of the Valladolid defence and the performances of the full-back Antonio Rukavina and left-midfielder Zakaraya Bergdich were also top rate. When the chances came, moreover, Valladolid were more telling in front of goal.
Fausto Rossi's first-half strike was as avoidable for Barca as it was welcome for the hosts. The ball bounced around the Barca area as Gerard Pique and Adriano failed to clear their lines and the Italian drilled home.
From Lionel Messi at the other end there were mere flickers. His best chances, tellingly, were created alone. A couple of speedy bursts yielded shots on target in either half but Diego Marino in the Valladolid goal stood tall. This, however, was not one of those underdog victories which owed everything to the goalkeeper; Valladolid were good value for their win.
And even when Barca carved out a clear-cut chance for Neymar, the only one of the game from their perspective, he contrived to fire over. Not long afterwards, he was hooked by Tata Martino. Pique was given similar treatment after a clumsy booking, sacrificed so Sergio Busquets could slot in at centre-back to generate attacks. Barca remained slack though and could even have gone two behind.
After Messi had lobbed another free kick into the clutches of Marino, the substitutes Rama and Oscar combined after the former showed Javier Mascherano a clean pair of heels.
Barca in the closing stages simply did not play like a team who were fighting like their title credentials depended on it. There was nothing to enliven their spirits; there was possession and territory, as usual, but no cutting edge.
The form of Neymar in this match will in particular be a concern for Martino. He jetted to South Africa and scored a hat-trick for Brazil in midweek and looked like he had a ball. Here was the comedown.
Busquets spelt out plainly what the woeful display now means. "We did not have the right attitude. We made things very difficult for ourselves," he said. "It's a very tough loss. We're now in a difficult situation in La Liga."
Indeed, Barcelona's Liga destiny seems to be out of their hands. They have 11 games left - two of which are against the Madrid big boys while Villarreal away will be no cakewalk either. Indeed, on this form, it is hard to scan the fixture list and pick out a safe three points for the Catalans. That is evidence enough of how shoddy they have been in 2014. Ten league matches and only five wins - that is not title form, not with Real Madrid now clear at the top of the table and it is theirs to lose.