Barcelona may win La Liga but Atletico Madrid can pull off a European upset
Last August in this space, I wrote that "Luis Enrique's squad has the talent and experience to not only become the first to retain the Champions League but to repeat their treble [of last season]."
I meant it then, and still think so now. But they remain what Lucho would probably call in football terms "lightyears away" from achieving that, even though it seems close with a Copa del Rey final place in their pockets, dominant league leadership and a Champions League quarterfinal on the horizon.
The title refused to bend its knee, Ligue 1 style, on Sunday as Villarreal fought like wounded tigers from 2-0 down back to a 2-2 draw. I suspect they were encouraged by the fact that Andrés Iniesta was absent and Gerard Pique had been the subject of a tactical withdrawal. Watching it must have been a dose of tough medicine for the sheep who bleat about La Liga's lack of competitive nature.
The Yellow Submarine couldn't quite drag Barça below the waterline, but they did go toe to toe with the Spanish and European champions. If not for a little bit of refereeing fortune favouring the visitors, it might easily have been the end of their 39-game unbeaten run. Located in a community with a minuscule population and high unemployment, Villarreal showed more nous, more bravado, better technique and greater intensity than Barcelona.
The key takeaway is that Barcelona refused to let a point slip away. They dug deep within what are unquestionably stretched physical and mental resources, showing what used to be called "the right stuff."
Madrid cut points off their deficit, fine. But Barca's closest chasers, Atleti, couldn't cope with the impact of edging through a titanic Champions League eliminator via extra time and penalties against PSV Eindhoven, and then getting chased all over El Molinon by Sporting Gijon on Saturday evening. Thus, Barcelona's thorny Sunday afternoon still yielded a net one-point gain at the top of the league.
There was a degree of predictability about it all, despite Atleti being Spain's meanest team on the road, having gone seven games without defeat and Sporting a less-than-magnificent seven without victory.
Why? Well because Atleti hadn't won in any of their past three visits to Asturias, because Sporting had already shown themselves capable of a draw with Madrid earlier in the season at El Molinon. In midweek, you could also see several players of Diego Simeone's team metaphorically on their knees after their draining battle with PSV. Also -- and please forgive the football romantic in me here -- because Sporting were coached by Abelardo, pretty much Luis Enrique's best pal in football.
I'm sure the two ex-Barça teammates didn't talk about Sporting giving an extra effort so that the league leader's title chances would be helped; that would be simply fanciful. Sporting and Abelardo have plenty of issues of their own to worry about, after all. But if you haven't noticed that this is precisely the type of eerie narrative that football always throws up, then you haven't been paying attention.
Luis Enrique and Abelardo were born in 1970, less than a month apart, and fewer than a couple of kilometres from each other, in Gijon. They developed through the Sporting cantera ("youth system") and won Olympic Gold together, with Abelardo scoring in the 3-2 final win over Poland from Pep Guardiola's cross. They also lifted copious trophies in the same Barcelona team under Bobby Robson and then Louis Van Gaal.
Just for the record, again, it's clear that Abelardo and his staff only wanted to win for their hometown club, which is fighting for La Liga survival. But, really, if you don't understand that there was a bit of an extra "edge" to his preparations, even some extra intensity generated subconsciously, then you don't understand people. I'm not sure how it is that sport weaves these "you'll never believe it" stories over and again, but it does.
Honestly, I think that this has been the weekend that the title went away from Barcelona's challengers, and when there's a "count-back" at the end of the season to figure out exactly when the title was won, that'll become clear. All of it courtesy of a football pal, former teammate and boyhood chum.
It may be more bad medicine for those who can't see that Barcelona's excellence is what makes Barcelona dominant in Spain, and nothing at all about La Liga not being competitive. Atleti have proved themselves a match for anyone in Europe over the past few years; they're more than simply "very good in Spain." Yet even with a 1-0 lead, they succumbed to the team currently second from bottom in La Liga. Is that competitive enough for the critics?
Now, after the dust has settled and most of La Liga's stars are off on international duty, the table has Celta, Sevilla and Athletic in fifth, sixth and seventh places respectively. Just for the record, Celta put four goals past Barcelona this season, Sevilla beat them 2-1 at the Nervion and await them in the Copa Del Rey final, while Athletic pumped the European champions 5-1 in the Spanish Supercup. Nevertheless, the way the weekend panned out has a certain backlash for Barcelona and their chances of making history by retaining the Champions League.
He'll never, ever admit it publicly, but Diego Simeone knows full well that Atleti are almost certainly not going to overtake Barcelona and win the title. However, they could repeat their feat of 2014 and put the champions out of Europe. (Now I don't actually think that they will, but anyone who dismisses the possibility out of hand is a fool.)
Right now, the Argentine can afford to make minor refinements, particularly in his team selection at home to Betis in the days before visiting the Camp Nou in the Champions League quarterfinal.
To my eyes, Koke, constantly a thorn in Barcelona's side in recent years, has looked exhausted over the past two games. How much football he plays for Vicente Del Bosque's Spain over the coming week remains to be seen. But Simeone could, if he wanted, choose to rest his key midfielder ahead of the Champions League test of fire in Barcelona.
More than that, against Betis, he can afford not to chance either Diego Godin or Jose Maria Gimenez, his first-choice centre-backs, who are both injured and racing against the clock to be ready for the Camp Nou on Apr. 5. If they are close to fitness, there's no real need for them to be rushed back any sooner. Simeone can afford to risk Saúl or Jesus Gamez in central defence next to Stefan Savic or Lucas. Ultimately, the two South Americans are vital in helping Simeone try and contain Barcelona's attacking forces.
Given that the Champions League has proved obstinately impossible to retain, I'd guess that when most people saw that Bayern and Real Madrid received "easy" draws in the last eight and Barcelona would face a draining, dangerous and hard-working rival, they thought that this is the hurdle where Barca trips and there'll be no defence again this year. Well, fine. But if Barcelona are to fulfill their potential and win a second consecutive treble, I genuinely hope they're made to fight for every inch of the path.
Hopefully, Godin and Gimenez will be present, fit and grimly determined to make the semifinal -- in which case we've got one hell of a tie in front of us.
Recently, I was in Qatar to interview Xavi. Off camera, we talked of our mutual admiration for the intense excellence of Simeone's team. That said, Xavi often used to argue with Koke and Juanfran while on Spain duty that if all teams played Atletico's way, there would be fewer fans in the stadium and those who did attend might often feel sleepy and bored.
It's not the Catalan's preferred brand of soccer: not enough thrill, insufficient attacking and too much attention paid to "closing the game down." But boy, he does admire how well Atleti execute their game plan. We more or less agreed that they've got a similar level of excellence to Barcelona, just that they're in search of a very different end product.
Of all the myriad marvels I've seen at the Camp Nou since moving to Spain so many years ago, one of the top five would be the last time Atleti lost prior to this weekend. It was at the Camp Nou, of course, when Koke put them 0-1 ahead, Godin and Filipe Luis were sent off and Simeone's nine men scared the living daylights out of Spain's champions for half an hour.
For the past couple of years, the world's teams have mostly looked like they'd need 13 or 14 players on the pitch at the same time to cope with the treble-holders; Atleti looked threatening with nine! Now the competitive nature of La Liga, and that defeat at Sporting, may have provided Atleti with a small chance to get their best XI on the pitch at the Camp Nou in a couple of weeks' time and in the best shape.
You want competition for Barca? Fasten your seatbelt for that one.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.