Awful. Legitimately, truly awful.
Barça came into Las Palmas, a crucial away match, and got slapped in the face by a smart coach in Paco Jemez, who drew his team up to take advantage of a Barça team that was, frankly, rather naive. At any point in the match, just as in any point in the last run of matches save Girona, you can see a disjointed team that is at times undisciplined.
Solo runs, dribbles into banks of defenders, ridiculous decisions in the final third and weird passes into the box all played into the hands of a team fighting for survival, who would take a surprise point against the league leaders with celebratory joy.
Only Messi came to play today, and play he did, with dribbles, runs and an almost violent free kick that put Barça ahead. That is when the match got messy. Mateu Lahoz — the ref who calls ’em like only he sees ’em — blew for a penalty off a Las Palmas set piece. Reasons varied, and even Lahoz didn’t have one. Might have been a Sergi Roberto foul, might have been the Digne handball. Perhaps the Vermaelen foul, in a temporary bit of color blindness? Either way, it was a penalty, a lifeline for a team that creates nothing from open play, and wasn’t really going to create much from open play unless its opponent got stupid with possession, and gifted them runs and open play, chances to run and cause havoc.
Such was the contentiousness of the penalty that Barça seemed rather disinterested in playing football after that, just running around with no sense or direction or purpose, no structure, no nothing. It’s as if each player thought to himself, “We can beat these mopes in our sleep,” then set about proving it on an individual basis.
Paulinho and Aleix Vidal were part of the XI, and both were subjected to excoriation by Barça Twitter, and both were poor. But the entire team was poor. Sergi Roberto was distracted and slow. Iniesta was invisible. Suarez, defanged by playing with a yellow Sword of Damocles dangling over his head, was completely ineffectual. The list goes on.
Valverde pulled Paulinho and Vidal for Coutinho and Dembele, and there was much rejoicing. Now this machine will go, just you wait. But it didn’t play any better than it did with the miscreant two in the XI, because of the lack of structure. Barça ran with Las Palmas in an open match as long as the match was on the Barça side of the pitch. On the Las Palmas side, it was disciplined defending, with energy and anticipation. And it worked.
Dembele came in and looked like an impostor, far worse that he did on the weekend because Las Palmas wasn’t stupid like Girona was, and knew enough to just shepherd him into spaces where he couldn’t really do any harm, cut off from a right back or Messi, who was making Quixotic runs at banks of defenders as Suarez stood there like a glowering slug.
There was a lot of attention focused on invididual players such as Paulinho, but Barça had one shot on goal in the entire second half, of which six minutes were added. One. Valverde and Iniesta had issues with the Lahoz penalty call, but neither expressed much about the way the team played, something that did far more damage than Lahoz. The gaps between lines, such as they were, were immense so that when possession was lost at the terminus of another individual effort, Las Palmas had plenty of space to play into, and on it went.
Coutinho buzzed around, but was ineffective as well. Iniesta watched from the bench with the chagrined look of a man who sees a once sure thing becoming substantially less so. Barça has drawn four of its last five matches, while Atleti has won all of its last seven matches. Sunday will be a titanic battle, one in which there is no way that Barça will be as poor as they were against Las Palmas today. If they are, they will lose. Badly. And the lead, which was once at eleven points, will be at two, with a steady diet of low blocks coming at the team.
Jose Mourinho, when he was in Liga, said that a team might not lose a lot of matches, but could draw its way into second place. Barça is still unbeaten in Liga, but the possibility of going unbeaten and finishing second in the league is suddenly real, should the current trend continue.
The team is in a moment right now. The Girona beatdown, as noted in this space, was an anomaly assisted by an opponent that should have known better, playing like naive children. Today was reality. Many are talking formations, but it’s even simpler — Barça had no structure, no way of play. It looked like a team that was looking past a weak opponent and got caought.
In Liga, after Atleti on Sunday, Barça have Malaga, then Athletic, Sevilla and a suddenly resurgent Leganes. Atleti have Celta, Villarreal, Deportivo and Real Madrid. Sunday’s match is, therefore, suddenly a must-win for Barça against a team that is in stellar form right now with its rumored-for-Barça star coming off consecutive hat tricks.
There is a larger question to be asked here, which is was Barça buttressed by the failings of its Liga counterparts and is finally playing to its real standard, or is the team in a crappy bank of form? Sunday will teach a lot, but in three matches, two Liga bracketed by the Chelsea return leg, Barça have the potential to dramatically change the view of its season in a way that many wouldn’t have predicted a month ago.
Opponents have figured out ways to stop Barça from scoring. When the attack gets desperate, gaps open up, which are exploitable by a quality opponent. Were Las Palmas a better side, it might have won today’s match, so there is something to be grateful for. Meanwhile, Barça have to figure out how to play against opponents who are not going to put their necks on the chopping block, and fast. Or “Hay, Liga” could well become “Bye, Liga.”