By Robin Bairner
Real Madrid introduced Pep Guardiola to a new sensation on Saturday night: defeat against Barcelona’s greatest rivals at Camp Nou.
Ten times the Catalan faced Los Blancos at the atmospheric venue as a player and 10 times his side came through unscathed. He had then enjoyed six matches as a coach without a loss prior to the 2-1 reverse.
And the taste of defeat will have been particularly potent as the capital side effectively clinched the league title, moving seven points clear with only four games left to play.
The torrential rain teeming down from the Barcelona sky throughout the encounter summed up the mood of the home camp, which looked flat, even during the pre-match press conferences.
|LA LIGA LOST:
The matches that cost Barca
|Xavi and Cesc had Barca cruising, but a loss of concentration allowed the Basque side to earn an unlikely point in San Sebastian.|
|Messi and Co threw everything they had at Javi Varas, but the keeper stood firm, saving a late penalty from the Argentine.|
|Valera struck the only goal as Guardiola's side produced a distinctly below-par display in the capital.|
|The Yellow Submarine were toiling in the relegation zone, but Barca couldn't find the guile to break through at El Madrigal.|
|A raucous Pamplona crowd created an intense atmosphere, and despite a second-half fightback, a Lekic double helped to sink the champions.|
Before the line-ups were officially announced, there was a ripple of sensation that Pep had taken the bold decision to start with the promising Cristian Tello in place of Alexis Sanchez, who was admittedly a big doubt approaching the game. The speculation proved to be well founded, and the Chilean winger joined the out-of-form Cesc Fabregas and the out-of-favour Gerard Pique as the most noteworthy names on the bench.
While Guardiola’s hand was presumably forced to leave Sanchez out of his starting XI – only those inside the inner sanctum of Camp Nou will truly know how seriously the South American is affected by his physical complaints – his gamble to go with Tello as opposed to Cuenca proved the wrong call as the youngster crumbled under the pressure of the most intense club game in the world. Although the 20-year-old showed glimpses of his searing pace, his decision-making was poor and the experienced Alvaro Arbeloa regularly stopped his progress with ease, allowing Madrid to focus halting more pressing threats, such as Lionel Messi, who was notable by his relative anonymity.
Guardiola watched this unfold in a strangely inanimate manner, replacing the youngster only late in the game.
By that stage, the coach had already made one decisive play, again withdrawing Xavi which brought immediate success. Alexis was deployed for the final 20 minutes, suddenly providing a more direct threat to Madrid’s goal and scoring literally within seconds of his arrival.
Yet this change came too late to make a lasting impact, and any illusion that this substitution was more Guardiola magic was swiftly cast aside as Cristiano Ronaldo broke the offside trap and coolly finished past Victor Valdes.
The Portuguese’s goal condemned Barca to successive defeats for the first time since May 2009, and though it signalled the end of their hopes of winning a fourth-straight Primera Division title, there is still much left for the Catalans to achieve this term if they can refocus and regroup.
Guardiola will need to galvanise his squad quickly, though, as Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea promises to be a testing affair. After frustrating at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday, the Blaugrana face a 1-0 deficit, and although they are still favourites to progress, the Blues travel to Spain at the perfect time to face a squad battered both physically and mentally.
There were signs of frustration in Barca’s play on Saturday night, with even the characteristically calm Messi starting to look tetchy towards the end of the match. But coolness was not the main mental attribute lacking from their play; the hosts lacked the lustre of their guests, who appeared more ready for battle and eager to prove a point to the estimated 400 million fans watching the game around the world.
If Barcelona are to turnaround the European tie on Tuesday, Guardiola must make his plays correctly.
Alexis must – if fit – start, and the option of Cuenca must be on the table, too. Pique may have fallen out of favour with the coach, but his aerial presence would be useful against a team who will focus heavily on set pieces to try and score a potentially priceless away goal, particularly having seen Sami Khedira scramble the weekend’s opener following a corner haplessly defended.
Tuesday truly could be a pivotal night in Barca’s campaign, having suffered their biggest blow of the Guardiola reign to date.
Victory would provide the Camp Nou outfit a soothing balm after Saturday but more crucially, give them fresh impetus before the end of the season. Records are still there to be broken, with the prospect of becoming the first team in the Champions League era to defend their title a particularly priceless carat, especially given it would come at the expense of Madrid, whose efforts to win a historic 10th European crown have been foiled for nearly a decade.
If this is achieved, Barca could justly argue to have enjoyed a stronger campaign than Los Blancos, confirming their status as an immortal side and providing Guardiola with that familiar feeling of record-breaking success once more.
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