Wounded Barca can still rescue season
Barcelona’s Champions League reverse at the hands of Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid on Wednesday is a heavy blow, but they can still rescue their season by winning La Liga and the King’s Cup.
Barca retain a realistic chance of avenging the 2-1 aggregate defeat to Atletico in their Champions League quarterfinal by overhauling the league leaders and claiming a fifth domestic title in six years.
Atletico have a one-point lead over second-placed Barca with six games left and the Catalan giants host their rivals from the capital in the final game of the campaign next month.
Barca can also exact revenge for their 2011 King’s Cup final defeat to Real Madrid when they play their arch rivals in the showpiece match of the latest edition at the same Mestalla stadium in Valencia next Wednesday.
Together with the season-opening Spanish Super Cup, which Barca won in August by defeating Atletico over two legs, the two trophies would not be a bad haul for Barca coach Gerardo Martino in his first season in charge at the Nou Camp.
That said, Martino can expect some sharp criticism after his team were undone over two legs by an Atletico side few expected would be challenging Europe’s wealthy elite at this stage of the Champions League campaign.
There have already been suggestions he should have made changes earlier in last week’s first leg in Barcelona when the home side were dominating and the Atletico players were running out of steam.
His decision to withdraw playmaker Andres Iniesta in the 72nd minute of Wednesday’s second leg and replace him with Pedro was questioned by the player himself in a post-match television interview.
Iniesta is exactly the kind of player who can unlock a tiring defence with a killer pass and it was his brilliant assist that released Neymar to score in the 1-1 draw in the first leg.
“I was surprised by the change but it’s the coach’s decision,” the Spain international told Canal Plus.
Martino now needs to lift his troops for Saturday’s La Liga game at Granada and make sure they are ready for the Cup final four days later.
“The team right now is in bad shape,” he told a news conference after the defeat at the Calderon.
“But we are still alive in the League and the Cup,” added the Argentine.
“The most important thing is to keep competing. We have a decisive game in Granada and next Wednesday a great final.”
Like arch rivals Real Madrid, Barca expect to win every competition they contest and their failure to reach the Champions League semifinals for a record-extending seventh consecutive season was always going to set alarm bells ringing.
If they also fail in both La Liga and the King’s Cup and end the season without major silverware, Martino’s days in the high-pressure world of Spanish football may be numbered.