Four-nil isn’t a score line that teams routinely overturn after the first 90 minutes in a two-legged affair. It’s not something you can just come back from. In most cases it’s a task that condemns the loser, deems the second match an act a frivolous formality. And had Athletic Club been up against any other opposition in the Spanish Supercopa, there wouldn’t have been the slightest sliver of optimism from their foe’s camp. But somewhere underneath the self-loathing, pessimistic façade of the Barcelona faithful following their fluke in the Basque country, there was hope, if not expectation for the second act.
After the treble? Back at the Nou Camp? With Lionel Messi in the team? Come on, what are the chances of lightening striking twice? Whether they’ll admit it or not, every Barca fan that paid entry to the Nou Camp that evening of the return leg was clinging onto the possibility that the blaugrana would flip the tie on its head. If you’d back any team to do the impossible, that team was Barcelona. For many the comeback was on.
Of course that’s not what happened, was it? Though Messi opened the scoring just before half, Gerard Piqué was sent off shortly after the break for berating the linesman with some unspeakables; he’s still serving a suspension. Barcelona were never able to recover and Athletic’s Artiz Aduriz equalized with a definitive away goal to put the aggregate score beyond Barca’s reach.
Now wind back the clock to August 11th, one week before the second leg. Some 3,500 kilometers away in Tbilisi, Georgia; Messi and company had nearly let the European Super Cup slip through their fingers as well when fellow La Liga side Sevilla dug their way out of a 4-1 hole to draw even in the final ten minutes, only to have Pedro kill off the dream deep into extra time. However, there were no last-gasp heroics to spare the blushes at home in front of the local jury against the boys from Bilbao. Luis Enrique’s outfit had conceded nine goals in three matches, and all of a sudden the cracks in the canvas were starting to show. The fragile performances in both super cups were beginning to cast a long shadow on an ominous first half of the season that lie in wait.
Where most campaigns are judged on how a club finishes opposed to the manner in which they start, the opposite can be said for Barcelona this season. Before Christmas Luis Enrique must take his team to some of the league’s most formidable cauldrons – the Vincente Calderón against Atlético Madrid this week, to the Sánchez Pizjuán to take on Sevilla the first weekend in October, El Clásico at the Bernabéu in November, and away to Valencia in early December.
Despite their title, the league champions took only managed 7 of 12 points from those fixtures last season. Moreover this lineup doesn’t include tricky Champions League away trips at Roma, Bayern Leverkusen, and a trek to Belarus to play BATE Borisov. Add the mandatory obligation of playing in the FIFA Club World Cup being hosted half way around the world in Japan this December and the list of away fixtures to take place before the mid-season break appears nothing short of dire.
Of course, the key to sustaining form over thick patches of complicated matches is to rotate the squad in order to avoid injury and keep all its members fresh. Ask Carlo Ancelotti whose Real Madrid crumbled at the nucleus last season after winning 22 straight in the fall of last year. Yet rotation might not be a luxury Luis Enrique will enjoy, or at least, until the club’s transfer ban is lifted in January. Only then will Barcelona be able to register their summer window signings, Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, and relieve some tired legs. But until then, the Barcelona squad is recklessly thin and we’re starting to see the effects of that detriment already.
Having loaned Martín Montoya to Inter Milan, there was no like-for-like replacement for Dani Alves when the Brazilian went down with a lengthy injury on the first day of the domestic campaign back at the new San Mamés. Eventually Luis Suárez finally set things right against Athletic Club after Messi had missed yet another penalty, but homegrown, playmaking midfielder Sergi Roberto was made to fill in at right back, something he was deployed to do again when Málaga came to town a week later. Douglas, Barcelona’s other Brazilian right back, is also sidelined with an injury. Just do your best in the meantime, Sergi.
The lack of depth doesn’t end there. During both the Spanish and European Super Cups to which Neymar was forced to miss with a case of the mumps, his natural replacement was Pedro. That being said, we know Pedro is now employed by Chelsea Football Club in West London. Meaning Neymar’s potential deputies are Munir El Haddadi or Sandro Ramirez, both of whom have made appearances and even scored for the first team but lack experience. The two twenty year-olds are also positional auxiliary units for Suárez and Messi. Fill those shoes, boys. But when it comes to the important matches and a member of Barcelona’s hazardous trident is unavailable for selection, does the manager trust his young guns or shuffle the deck to accommodate a startling XI with a few more stripes? Decisions, decisions…
Nevertheless, the immediate worry will be escaping Madrid this weekend unscathed. Barcelona’s defensive figurehead, Gerard Piqué, remains suspended due to the aforementioned incident. Mascherano will most likely be paired with either Jérémey Mathieu or Thomas Vermaelen, who has risen from the dead after spending the entirety of last season maimed. One can’t help but think these selectional conundrums will be a reoccurring theme in the next few months as injuries and suspensions amass on a thin squad. Thwarting Málaga is one thing; putting a stop to an Atleti team that put three past Sevilla in Seville last month is another.
In closing, Barcelona have so far shrugged off the doubters in their first two La Liga fixtures. The demons of Bilbao were finally exorcised and another three points at home have put Luis Enrique’s men already two points clear of adversaries Real Madrid who laid an egg against newly promoted Sporting Gijón on opening day. All that aside, the toughest tests lie ahead in the Spanish autumn. Despite failing to pull off the unlikely in the Spanish Supercopa, the blaugrana still possess the ability to make one believe that the impossible isn’t as it seems. The status quo remains – if anyone can pull of this mission impossible, it’s probably Barcelona.
Written by Bobby Mohr – Why not tweet him?