BARCELONA // As the minutes wound down at Camp Nou on Sunday evening, a suited Luis Enrique stood on the edge of his technical area watching his side’s attempt to come from behind against a Valencia team they had beaten 7-0 in January. Occasionally, the Asturian put his hands in his pocket or turned to his bench in frustration while cursing.
Enrique is a master of dealing with pressure and not becoming emotional, but he is under immense strain and it showed. His Barcelona team were nine points clear at the top of La Liga a month ago. Now, following three straight league defeats, they are on the same points as Atletico Madrid, 76. Real Madrid, whose coach Zinedine Zidane said the title race was over in February, are a point behind. All three have five games to play, with Barca top on a superior head-to-head record.
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The bank of credit which Enrique built up in his first season in charge is diminishing fast. His team, the Spanish, European and world champions, have lost four of their past five matches. Before that, they had gone 39 unbeaten.
On Sunday evening, a huge crowd of 88,667 – by far the biggest in world football over the weekend – came to get behind their team. Only seven of those fans were Valencia supporters.
Barca’s Almogavers ultras behind one goal held up a huge banner before kick off which read: “We’ll win again.” But they did not win, they didn’t even draw.
Cules have been at their best during the adversity of recent weeks, helping to conjure the best atmosphere seen at Camp Nou when it was most needed. Usually their support is not necessary, though it has been of late. But their encouragement cannot stop the slide and there are questions aplenty.
Why have Barca collapsed at a key moment when they have been otherwise excellent? Why has the rotation of players stopped – though Daniel Alves found himself on the bench a couple of days after dressing up as his girlfriend and filming her expected response to the Uefa Champions League elimination. Why has Neymar disappeared since appearing on the platform for Ballon d’Or winners? Why have new signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal barely played? Why have no players been promoted from the youth system? Why have winners turned into losers?
When Valencia visited in January, Luis Suarez scored four goals and Lionel Messi three. Along with Neymar, Barca's highly venerated front three have been superb for most of the season and a major reason why Barcelona have been triumphant for much of it. Until now. In their past five games, the "MSN" strike force have managed only four goals between them.
It’s not like they didn’t create chances, but the Catalans struggled to convert them. As the players became tense, passes were misplaced, mistakes were made. Messi, who did score his 500th goal for club and country, looked haunted after one chance went over the bar. The once cocksure Gerard Pique has become a figure of fun in the Madrid press which he has chided until recently.
Barca’s aura of invincibility has crumbled. They were two down to Valencia after an Ivan Rakitic own goal and a Santi Mina second before half time. Valencia’s goalkeeper Diego Alves was superb.
Valencia, setting up in a 4-5-1 formation, rode their luck, but still condemned Barca to a third consecutive league defeat for the first time since 2003.
Back then, expectations were lower. The Catalans had lifted only one European Cup. They have won four in the last decade but they will have to wait for a fifth after Atletico, their greatest threat to the Spanish title, eliminated them in last week’s quarter-finals.
A tetchy Enrique insists that the physical state of his team is better than a year ago when they won the treble. He maintains that Barca can still win the Primera Liga.
"We were better than Valencia in every aspect apart from effectiveness," he said. "Three points for us would have been fair today, but this sport is very capricious. We have to know how to lose when we lose. Our credit has been used up and we have five games now. We know if we win them we will be champions."
They will. They will win the Copa del Rey if they beat Sevilla in next month’s final too, but the slide must first be arrested.
It won’t be easy: their next game, on Wednesday, is a tough one away at Deportivo La Coruna.
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