The Catalans were second best as they lost 3-2 at home to Valencia on Saturday, and must improve if they are to claim any silverware this season.
Barca had won its last 25 league games at Camp Nou and has largely looked comfortable in that time. All appeared to be going to plan as Alexis Sanchez gave the Gerardo Martino's men the lead with a lobbed effort he didn't mean and certainly didn't expect to end up in the back of the net after just seven minutes.
It was a slice of good fortune, but Barca was unable to build on it despite dominating for much of the first half. "When you have the chance to kill teams off, you have to do it," Martino said afterwards.
Instead, however, Valencia hit back not once, but twice either side of halftime. First, Dani Parejo finished off a move he started himself with a simple finish at the back post. And then, Victor Valdes and Dani Alves were both at fault as the diminutive Pablo Piatti headed the visitors into the lead early in the second period.
But Valencia went back in front after Gerard Pique allowed Paco Alcacer far too much space just five minutes later and the youngster made it 3-2. And this time there was no Catalan comeback.
Messi cut a frustrated figure and appeared even disinterested at times, despite one wonderful run late in the game. The Argentine was static and his annoyance appeared to grow as his teammates failed to provide balls to his feet.
In the meantime, Valencia played a clever game. The team coached by former Barca midfielder Pizzi squeezed the midfield and put pressure on the defense, hitting the home side with quick and incisive attacks.
Pique was poor following a recent return to form, while Javier Mascherano still struggles with his positioning and Alves and Jordi Alba (later sent off for a cynical obstruction which brought a deserved second yellow against his former club) can be exposed against quality teams due to their attacking instincts. And on Saturday, even Valdes was woeful as he came and missed crosses.
"The team weren't good enough," admitted the ever-honest Mascherano afterwards. And Sergio Busquets added: "It was a slip-up we could have done without. We weren't as good as we are usually."
|LA LIGA AHEAD OF SUNDAY'S GAMES
For years now Barca has needed a new defender, but recent performances suggested the problem had been partly solved by the emergence of Marc Bartra, plus the improved form of Pique. But Bartra didn't feature on Saturday and the Bluagrana back line (statistically the best in La Liga after last weekend's 3-0 win over Malaga) was shown up - just a day after the transfer window slammed shut.
But it wasn't just the defense. Barca's midfielders were overrun as Valencia played a high-tempo game and that will cause concern against the top teams. On Saturday, the passing of former Spain coach Luis Aragones may have affected the likes of Xavi (who looked close to tears before kickoff) and Cesc Fabregas, but that alone cannot explain the home side's dismal display.
So with Europe's finest attacking team, Manchster City, ahead in the Champions League and a trip to Madrid in La Liga in March, Barca better hope that Saturday was merely a blip. Because otherwise, there will be no happy ending when the trophies are handed out in May.
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