Barcelona's season may be incomplete even if they win La Liga, Copa del Rey
Through the window, cameras caught Andres Iniesta, a portrait of how much it had hurt. For only the second time in eight years, Barcelona had failed to make it to the Champions League semifinal and for the second time in eight years they had fallen here, at the Vicente Calderón. It was the second time in three years, in fact. Iniesta sat alone, occasionally lifting his hand to glazed eyes, seemingly pushing back tears. Familiarity did not make it any easier to digest and nor did what lay ahead. Not yet, anyway. "This is hard to take," he had said moments before boarding the bus.
That was not all Iniesta said. He also said "what's left is just as important." Which it is not, of course; not as important, but it is important. It has also, and this says something about the demands made on and level of expectation around Barcelona, become an obligation. On Wednesday night, the questions began. How had this happened? Why? And now what? There was an easy answer for that last question at least: Now, the league.
On Sunday night, Valencia visit the Camp Nou. Four days on, Barcelona must do something that they have done just once in the last month: they must win. And "must" is the right word.
"We have two lovely objectives left," Luis Enrique insisted. "Any team in the world would say that it is a great season if you win [the league and the Copa del Rey]."
Even Barcelona would say that. They have a 116-year history and only five of those years have ended better: in 1992, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015 they won the league and the European Cup, completing a treble in 2009 and 2015. They have won the league and cup double just six times before: in 1952, 1953, 1959, 1998, 2009 and 2015.
Winning the double again would be a major achievement and if Barcelona do so, they will rightly celebrate. And yet, it will feel like something is missing, especially if it is their rivals Real Madrid who lift the European Cup, the trophy that tends to eclipse all else and the trophy that Barcelona aspired to defend, therefore becoming the first club to do so in the Champions League era. A double is great but they sought a double treble. The only Spanish team to ever win one was looking for its third.
That no one has defended the Champions League underlines how difficult it is to do, while three trebles would have been extraordinary, almost absurdly so. But those were the expectations and so, in an odd kind of way, winning the league and the Copa del Rey, may still feel like a disappointment. As for not winning the league and the Copa del Rey ... well, that would be a disaster.
One of the reasons for this feeling is that the league and the Copa del Rey were already "won." It was done. Only the Champions League wasn't and they were favourites there, too. Barcelona reached the final of the Copa del Rey, which awaits them in May, at the start of February. They long since took a lead in the league, too. Only a few weeks have passed since Zinedine Zidane said the title race was over and when Gerard Piqué headed them into the lead in the clásico, he had headed them 13 points above Real Madrid.
When they kick off against Valencia on Sunday night, it is likely that they will be just one point ahead of Madrid and no points ahead of Atlético. The team that had not lost in 39 games, who Simeone said "doesn't slip up," has now lost three times in four. They have picked up just one of the last nine points in the league. "Hay Liga!" as the phrase goes; there is a league title race after all. It kind of sneaked up on them, under cover of the Champions League, but there is. Tomorrow, it returns to centre stage.
Europe eclipses all but this weekend, Spain's big three must fix their attention on domestic matters once more. In fact, they must do so for the next fortnight: by the time the Champions League semifinals come round they will have played three more league games and there will be just three weeks to go.
It feels almost as if it is a three- or six-game sprint that starts now, one that they will approach with different attitudes. For Madrid and Atlético, it is an unexpected opportunity, a race that they didn't anticipate being invited to run, but also slightly secondary. For Barcelona, it is their season now, something to be approached with a certain fear and concern, if also with a head start. It is not just that they were knocked out of Europe on Wednesday night, it is the way they were knocked out and the damage that may do domestically. It is what that defeat says about their form.
Barcelona's lead over Atlético is three points, their lead over Real four. Head-to-head goal difference means that those leads are effectively four and five points with just six games to go. On the face of it, the fixtures might favour them: Barcelona play Valencia (H), Deportivo (A), Sporting (H), Betis (A), Espanyol (H) and Granada (A). Or perhaps they favour Atlético, who are up against Granada (H), Athletic (A), Málaga (H), Rayo (H), Levante (A), and Celta (H). Madrid's run-in reads Getafe (A), Villarreal (H), Rayo (A), Real Sociedad (A), Valencia (H) and Deportivo (A).
Barcelona would have to drop points twice to give their rivals a chance and in purely practical terms, the Champions League exit may even help them.
Luis Enrique insists that the problem is not fitness, claiming that the figures he has show that they are in better shape than last year. Meanwhile, Gerard Piqué admitted that there was "tiredness in our legs" but agreed that the problem was not "physical." But it is hard not to see something in that: they have played 12 times more than Madrid, they do look tired and could do with seven days to prepare these games.
Physically a break might help, then, but even with a break, can you suddenly recover players? To take just one example: when it comes to assists and goals, Lionel Messi is in the worst run of his career. And anyway, they will not actually get that break. Not yet, at least: they meet Valencia, Deportivo and Sporting in a six-day spell.
Besides, actual tiredness is one interpretation but watching Barcelona this season, another possibility emerges: aware that the season would be a long one, aware of the short squad, the world club championships and the weakness of the bench, has there been an attempt to conserve energy whenever possible? And if you do that, is it really so easy to then shift back up through the gears again? Is it possible to arrest that slide and if it's not physical, is it their football?
Winning their final six games of the season seemed virtually guaranteed a month ago; not so now. On Sunday Barcelona face the side that they beat 7-0 in the Cup "but we're not the same now... and nor are they," warned Valencia manager Pako Ayestaran. After Wednesday night, that may be even more true.
"The league and the cup final await; we have the desire and the energy to fight for both," Piqué said. As for Dani Alves, he was trying to release the tension and the gloom in his own unique way, with a video that is rather odd. Most attacked him for it but who knows: that kind of message may well be what they need. Opportunity has become obligation; reframing it as opportunity, something Piqué, Iniesta and Luis Enrique tried to do, makes sense. Reframing it as something to enjoy instead of fear, as Alves did, may help too.
That's the way Madrid and Atlético will now live it because in Barcelona, the fear is there, for sure. How could it not be? Wednesday wasn't bad luck, it was bad football. Defeat there was no one-off. It has, rather, become a reality. The momentum is against them, suddenly, and that could have huge consequences. If they were to lose on Sunday, the risk would be those emotions would become overwhelming while the impact in terms of points and position would be real. It's not just the pressure that closes in; it is, unexpectedly, opponents too.
Iniesta boarded the bus on Wednesday night and took up his seat in silence, cameras trained on him by the entrance to the south stand at the Calderón. By the time he takes to the field again, Real Madrid and Atlético will have faced Getafe and Granada and in all likelihood will be right behind him and his team. They were beaten then; they must ensure they are not beaten again.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.