Madrid (AFP) – Barcelona’s hopes of becoming the first side to retain the Champions League were dashed as they were eliminated 3-2 on aggregate by Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.
A 2-0 defeat at the Vicente Calderon was Barca’s third in four games after a 39-match unbeaten run stretching back the previous six months.
Here, AFP Sports looks at five reasons why Barca have suffered such a drastic dip in form.
– Tiredness –
The effects of playing in six competitions since mid-August with a short squad has finally begun to take hold on a Barca squad that was also affected by a transfer ban last summer, which delayed big money signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal’s involvement until January.
Barca have played 56 games already this season, including a mid-season trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. By contrast, Atletico have played 48 matches and Real Madrid 43.
The Catalans were overrun by Real in the final stages as their losing run began in El Clasico on April 2 and lacked the physical freshness to break down the mass ranks of Real Sociedad and Atletico’s defence in the past week.
– Difficult run of fixtures –
Just as Barca have wained physically, they also faced their most difficult run of the season with two gruelling games against Atletico and Real’s visit to the Camp Nou mixed in with a trip to high-flying Villarreal and a visit to Sociedad’s Anoeta, where they have their lost their past four league games.
Barca have won just one of those five, and were lucky to even do that as Fernando Torres’s sending-off turned the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Atletico with Los Rojiblancos leading 1-0 at the time.
A three-point lead over Atletico with just six games to go means Barca are still strong favourites to retain their La Liga title, principally because their calendar eases up significantly in the final weeks of the season.
– Messi magic dries up –
Five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has now failed to score the last seven times Barca have been eliminated from the Champions League.
Messi started 2016 on fire with 24 goals in his first 19 games of the year after a stunning 2015 that elevated him back above Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo to reclaim the Ballon d’Or.
Yet he has been held scoreless in Barca’s five-game wobble since and has continually dropped deeper, further away from the opposition area to try and make a difference as a playmaker without success.
– International break –
Barca’s record unbeaten run was ended in their first game after the March international break as their momentum was stalled by a two-week layoff while the majority of their squad jetted around the world.
Of the Barca 11 that started El Clasico, six had represented their country in South American World Cup qualifiers in the previous week.
The inopportune timing of the break just as the business end of the club season begins has been questioned by Europe’s biggest clubs and has only added to Barca’s fatigue in an extremely demanding season.
– Lack of competent back-up –
Despite Barca’s obvious signs of fatigue, coach Luis Enrique has used his full complement of three substitutions just twice in the past five games.
With the star front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar taking up a huge chunk of Barca’s wage bill, there was not enough spare cash to reinforce the squad with a fourth striker as Enrique wanted in January.
Expensive signings such as Turan, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen have only contrived to make a negative impact.
Mathieu’s introduction for Gerard Pique with Barca leading 2-0 at Villarreal changed the game as the Frenchman scored an own goal to earn the hosts a point.
Turan endured a torrid return to the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday having left Atletico last summer in his own words to “win the Champions League”.