Defeat against Valladolid once again raised questions on Martino and his methods, and showed that the aura surrounding the Blaugrana giants seems to be fading away...
By Shikharr Chandra
Maybe Pep Guardiola's greatness at Barcelona was to be seen only after he left the club. The Spanish manager won 14 trophies in four years as Barcelona boss, taking the club to an all time high which saw them being referred to as the 'greatest club team in the history of football'.
The Blaugrana were crushing teams at will and there was a sense of fear engulfing teams in Spain and Europe when faced with the prospect of coming up against them.
So, when Guardiola decided to call it a day at Barcelona, the pressure to succeed him was always on the cards and in came, Tito Vilanova who despite his illness took the club to their best start in the La Liga by winning 18 of their 19 games.
However it was in the Champions League that they fell short. If PSG sent a warning in the quarterfinals, then the humiliating 7-0 aggregate scoreline against Bayern was embarrassing. Despite having the same personnel as Guardiola did, Barcelona missed his tactical nous.
So, when Tata Martino stepped up to take over the mantle after Vilanova chose to step down due to health concerns, there was an air of escapade surrounding the fans who felt the team needed to evolve their style of football and needed an alternative to 'Tiki-Taka' which was mastered under Guardiola.
Neymar’s signing meant that the onus was not just on Lionel Messi to deliver. Martino’s style comprised of constant pressing and not being shy of taking the direct route when needed – which was unlike Barcelona of the past.
The debate of change in style first came to the fore when they recorded a comfortable 4-0 win over Rayo Vallecano where the Catalans had recorded less than 50% possession which was a first in more than four years!
"It was surprising to see Barcelona counter-attack,” said Carlo Ancelotti after his side succumbed to a defeat in the Clasico. It wasn’t a criticism of sort but a remark that made people ponder.
At first the changes under Martino looked good but when the side was surprised by a young Ajax team in the Champions League back in November last year, there were a few doubts raised.
However that seemed to be just the start of a tough time for both Martino and Barcelona this season.
Barcelona are four points behind league leaders Real Madrid in La Liga and have a two goal advantage in their Champions League tie against Manchester City. They are also in the finals of the Copa Del Rey. Hardly a bad start for the former Paraguay coach but still there seems to be a missing element.
Barcelona had an aura which would make the opposition dread. However following last weekend’s defeat to Valladolid, there are suggestions that the club’s ‘golden era’ is perhaps coming to an end. Not only did they look unimpressive, they ran out of ideas and didn’t create many chances either.
Neymar looked a shadow of the player who scored a hat-trick against South Africa for Brazil.
Messi and his Brazilian counterpart impressed earlier this campaign, but they have been unable to make much of an impact together recently - partially due to a string of fitness problems.
Barcelona are a side in transition. By next season the club would have bid farewell to two of its most faithful servants in Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes and with Xavi turning 34, time is not on his side as well. But what was upsetting to see was how easily Barcelona allowed Thiago Alacantra to leave the club, who for many was seen as an ideal successor for Xavi.
Xavi hasn't had the same kind of impact as he did in the past. His comments blaming the pitch after the defeat to Valladolid just about summed up everything. On the other hand, Alacantra has slowly and steadily found a place for himself in the Bayern Munich side and is reaping benefits of continuous game time.
Martino's aim at Barcelona was to not make the side solely dependent on Lionel Messi, but it seems that the club is still more or less dependent on the diminutive attacker to pull the strings in the attack.
There is no doubt that the club needed new ideas and a plan ‘B’ but what Martino needs to realise that too many alternations has brought a noticeable change in their style. A side that thrived on its creative play, link-ups and passing now just seems to be running short of ideas with the ball.
In the 3-1 defeat to Real Sociedad back in February, Martino's side looked boring to say the least, this despite the fact that the club had Messi, Neymar, Pedro and Andres Iniesta in the attack. What was notable to see was that Martino's rotation did not pay off.
The idea of playing Alex Song in the midfield alongside another defensive minded player in Sergio Busquets turned out to be a massive gaffe. This was certainly not the case in Guardiola's era who when rotated his side when needed and had players to cover up for his regulars.
Add to this the controversy surrounding Neymar’s signing has seen Sandro Rosell resign from the club president’s post.
When Jose Mourinho came out in open to call this Barcelona side the 'worst' in recent years, he was criticised a lot especially after the club recorded a win over Manchester City at the Etihad. It does seem that the Portuguese manager did make a fair point.
Is the club under crisis? Maybe or maybe not, but do Manchester City have a chance at the Nou Camp, most certainly yes. Manuel Pellegrini must realize that this Barcelona side is vulnerable at the back when quick attacks are launched. They are no more the side who will surely find the back of the net at least once in the tie.