Barca must recover confidence and form

Posted by Dermot Ledwith



The fallout from Barcelona's biggest defeat of the season at Real Sociedad has centered a lot of criticism on the starting 11 and tactics chosen by coach Gerardo Martino. Barca went down 3-1 on Saturday night and went three points behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. Now a huge change in form is needed in the league if the Blaugrana are to retain their title.

Barcelona-based sports paper Mundo Deportivo described the performance as a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type transformation" after the 2-0 win four days before at Manchester City in the Champions League.

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And the majority of the blame is explained by changes made by Martino between the side that won in Manchester and that which ran out to face Sociedad. To be fair to Martino, rotating the team is something he has been doing all season with reasonable success, but not to the extent of the six changes made for the game in San Sebastian.

While the Brazilian left-back Adriano came in for the injured Jordi Alba, it was leaving Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano, Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas on the bench to be replaced by Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Alexandre Song and Neymar that disrupted a side that had played so well in Manchester.

Just 10 days before in the same venue, Barca drew 1-1 with the same team to guarantee a place in the Spanish Cup final. Real Sociedad felt a great injustice after that tie, which was largely won in controversial circumstances during the 2-0 Barca win in the first leg at Camp Nou.

In the second leg, Sociedad had looked dangerous until Lionel Messi scored and put the tie beyond doubt, but they still had the determination to level that game near the end. There was a feeling of wounded pride and accusations when players on Barca's bench were said to have grinned and laughed at members of Sociedad's staff at the end of that game.

The writing was on the wall for Martino that La Real would be ready for the fight, a team that has lost only once at home in La Liga all season and are in the fight for the fourth Champions League place. Martino should have known he would need to put out a strong side capable of replicating that 1-1 performance, in which Barca warmed up for City by holding onto the ball for long periods of time.

With no game after Sociedad until the March 2 visit of Almeria, Martino did not need to rest his players. There can certainly be no good reason why 26-year-old Fabregas could not play another game in a busy week. Hernandez at eight years his elder understandably needs to be looked after with big games to come, but it appears that Martino underestimated Real Sociedad.

Either that, or he overestimated some of his own players. Song has never justified his price tag at Barca and was not the man to get the ball moving quickly in Barca's midfield on Saturday. Being played in the deepest lying position, he took over many of Sergio Busquets' duties of breaking up the opposition play and starting attacks from the defence, so why was Busquets also played in a slightly different position out to the left?

All season Martino has put his trust in Mascherano to partner Gerard Pique in the centre of defence for the important games, so why was Bartra, who some fans will say has been mistreated, suddenly thrust into defence against a quick Real Sociedad side thirsting for Barca blood?

These are questions only Martino can answer. Even with the game at 1-1 at halftime, his nerves were showing. The referee sent the Barca coach to the stands for the second half after being verbally attacked by the Argentine, who called him an idiot in his native dialect of Spanish.

Bartra was badly at fault for the crucial second goal, and some will say Mascherano has committed similar mistakes. Pique was not without fault, either, but looking at the bigger picture, Barca have been crying out for a new centre half for some time.

Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia ran a headline of "Barca lose their head and leaves half a league in Anoeta," and the experiment to use squad players to do what was a big job had quite obviously failed.

They now face two very winnable games in the league at home to Almeria on Sunday, followed by a trip to Valladolid the week after, before they can start to put right some of the mistakes made in recent weeks and rescue a season that had promised so much.

If, as you would expect, they come through those two games against clubs fighting relegation with six points, the Blaugrana then have 10 days leading up to the Clasico in the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, with home games against Manchester City and then Osasuna -- two games in which they really will have something to prove.

City will come to Camp Nou in the hope of taking advantage of a Barca in relative crisis to progress in the Champions, while Osasuna were the first team to stop a Martino side winning a game earlier in the season.

Confidence needs to be restored quickly in time for the trip to Madrid if the Liga title is to be saved. If those four games are won, and in style, it would not be outlandish to suggest that this side is capable of repeating another victory in the Bernabeu.

The key word is confidence. Martino and his coaching staff have to earn their salaries now after Saturday's disaster and restore some in a talented squad that should still be challenging for trophies on all three fronts at this stage of the season.

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