Barcelona need a quick wake-up, says Neil Humphreys
Messi and Co. must wake up soon or risk tumbling towards oblivion
QUARTER-FINAL, 2ND LEG
ATLETICO MADRID 2
(Antoine Griezmann 36, 88-pen)
Atletico win 3-2 on aggregate
Posters for missing footballers should be pinned on lampposts across Barcelona.
The haggard, haunted faces of Lionel Messi and Neymar would offer a poignant reminder of what the city has lost.
Their absence has already cost Barcelona a place in the Champions League semi-finals and a chance to win back-to-back trophies.
If they are not found on a football field soon, the dozing Catalans risk tumbling towards oblivion.
A fortnight ago, a double Treble seemed inevitable, another legendary chapter just waiting to be rubber-stamped.
Today, coach Luis Enrique would gleefully snatch at a La Liga and Copa del Rey double. On current form, he'll be lucky to collect either.
Barcelona are in freefall, with Messi and Neymar leading the lemmings over the cliff.
In a previous column, their inconsistency was highlighted as a potential stumbling block, with Luis Suarez expected to shoulder the burden to overcompensate for their mediocrity.
In the end, the only mark the Uruguayan left on Atletico Madrid yesterday morning (Singapore time) was beneath Diego Godin's right eye.
Even Suarez's elbow grease could not smoothen Barcelona's rough edges.
Enrique claimed he was 100 per cent responsible for the loss and his unexpected tactical caution certainly handed the initiative to the hosts.
But the bigger blunder was failing to sign adequate back-up for Messi, Neymar and Suarez. Even the greatest artists require understudies. The finest thespians occasionally have an off night.
Neymar and Messi have had an off month.
The Argentinian is enduring his longest goal drought since April 2010. He hasn't netted for Barcelona since March 16. Some 452 minutes have elapsed since he last raised his arms aloft in celebration.
The barren run neatly coincides with Barca's untidy slip from their perch, managing just one win in their last five and resuscitating a La Liga race that was once on life support.
Legends are allowed a brief dip in standards. But at Barcelona, two duds for the price for one is tantamount to sporting suicide.
Suarez, by far the most industrious of the trio, carried Neymar as if the Brazilian was an unwanted flat tyre.
Neymar was a dead weight in Madrid, a marooned tanker rather than the samba-fuelled sampan that once zipped past markers for fun.
Diego Simeone certainly deserves every plaudit for another defensive masterclass.
Atletico's organisation at the back, led by the truly outstanding Diego Godin and able deputy Lucas Hernandez, make the spirited Spanish side legitimate contenders for the Champions League crown.
But the other three semi-finalists will all offer greater resistance than Neymar's powder-puff prodding.
At right back, Juanfran was rarely tested, allowing Saul Niguez to nip forward to set up Antoine Griezmann's first goal with a delightful flick.
In defeat, the inherent flaw of an attacking autocracy was ruthlessly exposed. Unchallenged rulers rarely encourage a clear succession policy.
Who was signed to support the MSN trio should they falter? What striking alternatives does Enrique realistically have?
Neymar and Messi's irrelevance, along with Suarez's awful elbow and the ever-present risk of a second yellow card, made a potential case for all of them being substituted.
But they blundered on until the final whistle, unable to shake the attention of Atletico's back four and unable to go off. Barca had no options on the bench.
Messi, Neymar, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Andre Iniesta are not ready for retirement, but they are ready for a quiet moment of introspective analysis. Barcelona's incisive passing has gone awry.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, their pointless possession resembled the final days of Spain's tedious tiki-taka.
They passed, but never punished.
Atletico's constant harassing resembled a pack of pit-bulls tearing away at raw meat, with Busquets and the back four dragged across the Vicente Calderon turf.
Iniesta often looked like a plastic bag caught in the breeze, somehow elegant and entertaining to watch, but offering no real purpose.
As a result, the front three were reduced to irrelevant bystanders.
The decline of a dynasty isn't always pinpointed by a momentous event, but by a series of tentative steps towards mediocrity.
Barcelona have suffered four in five games. A crisis is coming.
Their flailing forwards must find their footing quickly or the Catalans could yet end the season with nothing.
BY THE NUMBERS
0: Barcelona forward Lionel Messi has failed to muster a shot on target for the first time in the Champions League since April 2014. That game was also against Atletico Madrid.
Enrique: We must bounce back
"It was the game we predicted, although perhaps I didn’t expect Atletico to play so deep. It wasn’t our best day." - Barca coach Luis Enrique PHOTO: REUTERS
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique admitted his side are suffering a slump in form after a third defeat in four games saw them dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid.
Antoine Griezmann struck twice for Atletico in a 2-0 win yesterday morning (Singapore time) to seal their passage to the last four at Barcelona's expense for the second time in three years, 3-2 on aggregate.
"It is clear that we are not in our best form, especially if you consider how we were playing before, but we need to lift ourselves," said Enrique, whose side's dreams of a treble were dashed.
"I'm 99.9 per cent to blame, no 100. That's why I am the coach, the most responsible.
"I can't say anything bad about the attitude of my players.
"It was the game we predicted, although perhaps I didn't expect Atletico to play so deep. It wasn't our best day."
Barca had gone 39 games without tasting defeat before losing back-to-back La Liga games to Real Madrid and Real Sociedad to leave Atletico also breathing down their necks, just three points behind in the title race with six games remaining.
Enrique's men will return to the Vicente Calderon in May for the Copa del Rey final and he insisted a league and Cup double would still mean a successful season despite missing the chance to become the first side to retain Europe's top trophy since it became the Champions League in 1992.
"The team wanted to retain the title, it was one our objectives and excited every Barca fan, but it isn't to be," said Enrique.
"We are finding it much more difficult than normal to score goals and suffering defensively too.
"We all have to improve and I'm the first one in that regard. The objectives for Barcelona are always the highest possible. We should be proud that Barca are always favourites for everything.
"We understand that we have to accept defeat, we have other competitions coming up that we can win. For any coach in the world to win two titles is a successful season."
Victory ended Atletico's seven-game losing streak against Barca dating back to when the Madrid club sealed their La Liga title at the Nou Camp in 2014.
Diego Simeone's men also reached the Champions League final that season before losing in heartbreaking fashion to local rivals Real Madrid in the final.
Real lie in wait once more along with Bayern Munich and Manchester City in today's semi-final draw.
Simeone is determined Atletico's journey towards a first Champions League title won't end in the last four.
"I don't have any thought for the semi-finals other than winning," he said. "We won't have anything easy. City have incredible financial power and Real Madrid and Bayern are historic teams in this competition.
"For Atletico to be among the four best teams in Europe is an important step, but we want more."
- Wire Services.