Barcelona met Atlético Madrid at the Camp Nou and neither of them won. Six hundred kilometres away, Real Madrid did. An own goal and three penalties, one of them retaken to bring the total to four, delivered a draw that suited no one except the team watching from home. Barcelona are a point behind Real having played a game more.
It is a week now since Gerard Piqué said that winning the league would be “very, very difficult” – a second 2-2 draw in four days leaves it seeming impossible now, even if Barcelona win all of their last five games – and on this evidence, they won’t.
This is a team in decline, unable to take their last chance to cling on to any lingering hope of winning a league title that in recent years has been theirs. Only a miracle would make it so now, and yet amid an institutional crisis as serious as theirs, perhaps the miracle is that they lasted this long.
Quique Setién inherited a team who were top, but most knew that position was precarious. Now, it is gone. That team have gone too, their season virtually brought to a close on a strange night when they were again open at the back and unable to challenge their opponents up front, where a decent start again slipped away from them – something seen so many times before.
The beginning suggested a game that would be fun, shifting from one side to the other. Luis Suárez fired off the first shot after 60 seconds and Yannick Carrasco almost scored direct from a free-kick that just evaded Diego Costa and José María Giménez four minutes later. Barcelona racked up two more even before they took an early lead.
Lionel Messi had one shot blocked on the edge of the area and Ivan Rakitic saw another pushed away by Jan Oblak, then a corner bent towards the near post hit the inside of Diego Costa’s leg and found its way into the net. Just 11 minutes had passed and Barcelona, playing a midfield diamond, were moving the ball quickly.
For all Barcelona’s recent failures, an empty stadium could not whistle them; with that lead, even a full one might not have done, but it did not last long. Soon, Carrasco escaped Piqué on the left and pulled away, leaving the defender flailing on the floor. Carrasco, so rarely seen since his return but so exciting when he is, headed into the area and cut across Arturo Vidal. As he did so, the contact could be seen clearly. It could be heard clearly too, echoing around an empty arena.
The referee, had no cause for hesitation. Marc André ter Stegen saved Costa’s penalty, but in the VAR room they had seen him off his line. Atlético got another chance, while Ter Stegen got a card – for an infraction of barely a couple of centimetres. Saúl Ñíguez took it this time, and scored.
With that, the balance tilted, although Messi curled a shot that may even have grazed the far post and also saw a free-kick clip off the wall and get pushed away by the goalkeeper. Otherwise, while the passing continued, there was little sign of incision. Suárez was sluggish and Messi was watched. At the other end, Ãngel Correa almost got in, and Barcelona’s vulnerability was revealed again. This is a team – a club – on the edge of the abyss, and it knows it.
A safety net was briefly placed below them early in the second half when Semedo dashed into the area on the right and tumbled under the challenge of Felipe. Replays suggested the contact was light, but that was enough. Messi ran fast towards the spot, as if preparing to smash the ball, a fierce rejection of recent frustrations, but instead dinked a gentle penalty floating past Oblak for the 700th goal of his career. He had been waiting three games for it to arrive, an eternity for the Argentinian and for the team that depend on him so completely.
The problem is that even he is not enough now; this is a team with an inability to hold a lead – underlined when another penalty followed fast. Semedo was again involved, this time at the other end. As he chased Carrasco into the Barcelona area, the Belgian tumbled. He did so having tripped over his own leg; the question was whether there had been come contact before that.
The referee decided there had been. Semedo didn’t complain, the pause to check was unusually short and Saúl’s penalty squeezed in near the post, via Ter Stegan’s hand. The German, conditioned by the card he had for the first infraction, would not keep it out.
A draw was a defeat for Barcelona, and definitive too. Knowing that, they sought to avoid it, at the risk of leaving themselves even more exposed – and with Carrasco there, that was always a tightrope to be walked. Even when he was withdrawn, the risk remained with Thomas Lemar and Vitolo now in place to deliver the final blow. Lemar, suddenly racing away, almost did deep deep into stoppage time.
The ball was Barcelona’s and so were the chances, but they were few and fewer still were clear. Suárez was absent, which is often when he appears, but not this time. Nor, indeed, could Messi find a way through the wall bricking off the box. Antoine Griezmann continued to sit it out, not introduced until the 90th minute, his presence virtually pointless. The ball circulated but rarely penetrated, Barcelona’s players held at the perimeter. Only Arturo Vidal found a way to break through, driven by a determination and directness that so few of his companions possess – and that was not enough.
Piqué went down under a challenge from Giménez, appealing for yet another penalty, and twice Vidal went close, supplied by the one full-back after the other – first from a right-foot shot just past the post after Semedo’s ball from the right, then with a header from Alba’s cross delivered from the other side.
Sergio Busquets then headed over Messi’s free-kick and Ansu Fati was sent on. It felt like a last roll of the dice, and there was no six. Still just 17, like the impressive Riqui Puig, Fati may well be Barcelona’s future. Too many of the men he joined are Barcelona’s past.