In the span of just five days, Barcelona nearly squandered the La Liga title. For 70 minutes, a second consecutive scoreless draw threatened. Had Ivan Rakitić not summoned a 71st-minute winner to bag the points, Real Madrid might have opened a two-point lead atop the table with a win at Mallorca on Wednesday. With seven rounds of games to go and the head-to-head tiebreaker also favoring Real Madrid, that could have proved decisive in the title race.
Instead, Barcelona is back on top in its pursuit of a third straight Spanish title, a fifth in six years and a ninth in a dozen seasons. But things aren’t as rosy as all that. Back in January, the Catalans made a midseason managerial change for the first time since 2003, firing Ernesto Valverde and installing Quique Setién after several other candidates turned down the job. The Johan Cruyff-inspired ideologue hasn’t managed to coax any more consistency from an aging core.
The relief was evident in Barca’s celebration of Rakitić’s goal:
Without it, Lionel Messi and his peers might have failed to beat Athletic Bilbao in the league for a second consecutive season. In the two clubs’ season opener way back on Aug. 16, Athletic eked out a 89th-minute goal on a world-class effort from Aritz Aduriz. That game was so long ago that Aduriz has since retired.
But this win, these points that put the pressure back on Real Madrid, do not obscure an uncomfortable truth.
In some games, Barca’s slow decline is more apparent than in others. But in broad, season-long statistics, the regression is unsubtle, better capturing the slide. Following Tuesday’s win, Barca’s points per La Liga game for the season is still only 2.19 — after five defeats and five draws in 31 games. In the last five seasons, the club has steadily slipped downward from 2.47 points per game. Goals scored per game has receded to 2.26 per game in that span, after spending year after year around the 3-goal mark. Goals conceded stands above the first decimal point — at exactly 1.00 — for the first time in years.
In fact, going by these numbers, Barca is on pace to have its worst season since 2007-08, when it finished third. That summer, the club decided to overhaul and hand the keys to a young and untested manager, Pep Guardiola.
This season, Barcelona has already crashed out of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, and a difficult Champions League round of 16 second leg against an in-form Napoli looms later in the summer. All the pressure, then, is on another league title.
To that end, Barca got the job done Tuesday. A wide-open introduction to the game offered up a delightful sequence of decent chances on both ends, before things got bogged down. As Messi poked and prodded the stout Athletic defense, to little effect, Iñaki Williams had the visitors’ best chance of the first half when he scampered away but was closed down well by Gerard Piqué.
Athletic Bilbao didn’t produce many other chances, although Barca goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen twice flapped uncharacteristically at crosses. Finally, a fortuitous bounce fell for Rakitić in the box. A ball bounced off Messi’s foot and into the Croatian’s path, who managed to whack it just out of Unai Simón’s reach.
That broke the resistance as Messi and Luis Suárez had a few more scoring opportunities. So did Arturo Vidal and Ansu Fati in injury time. The latter was denied by the post; the former by yet another excellent intervention by Simón, the 23-year-old goalkeeper who looks like a world-beater in the making.
But the victory nevertheless felt tight. And it reinforced how reliant Barca remains on Messi, the day before his 33rd birthday. Of Barca’s last 21 goals in La Liga, Messi either scored or assisted on 17.
Barca is back in first place, for at least 24 hours, but it hasn’t looked this weak in over a decade — statistically and, increasingly, to the naked eye.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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