On the morning of March 20, Barcelona were the unquestioned best team in the world. Not only were they the defending UEFA Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey winners, but they were huge favorites to win all three competitions again.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar had all just scored in a thrashing of Arsenal to book a quarterfinal place in the Champions League, they had an eight-point lead atop La Liga and had booked their spot in the Copa del Rey final. It wasn’t so much a matter of what trophies they would win, because they were surely going to win some, but where they would rank among the best teams of all-time if they could win a second consecutive treble.
The Catalans were on top of the world.
Now, they’re in trouble.
Barcelona are out of the Champions League, their lead in La Liga is down to three points and it’s not just that the Catalans look mortal – they look bad.
How did they get here?
March 20, 2-2 at Villarreal
Barcelona went to El Madrigal feeling great, and rightly so. They were in terrific form and when Ivan Rakitic and Neymar sent them into halftime with a 2-0 lead, it looked like it would be more for the same for the Catalans. A dominant win, three more points and another step towards the La Liga title.
After all, the most Villarreal had done in the first half is foul … a lot. The Yellow Submarine picked up five yellow cards in opening 45 minutes.
Villarreal didn’t ease up much in the foul area when play resumed, picking up three more cautions, but they also added a couple of goals. The Barcelona defense broke down twice, first watching Cedric Bakambu score before Jeremy Mathieu put the ball into his own net. For the first time in 12 league matches, Barcelona didn’t win.
Mood: Whatever. So a couple of things went wrong. Barcelona were still the best team in the world and who could blame them for looking ahead to the upcoming Clasico against Real Madrid. Plus, Atletico Madrid lost the previous day anyway so they had actually increased their lead atop the league to nine points.
April 2, 1-2 vs. Real Madrid
Barcelona absolutely dominated the opening half. It was shocking that they didn’t score, but it was only a matter of time. They found so much space through the Real Madrid midfield and the Barcelona faithful at the Camp Nou weren’t even worried. The team’s misses didn’t illicit groans, but instead cheers for the chances created because they knew the goals were coming.
Finally, Gerard Pique found the back of the net in the 56th minute. Barcelona had their lead.
The second half hadn’t gone as well as the first for Barcelona, but their 1-0 lead was certainly deserved. Only it lasted for a mere seven minutes.
Karim Benzema scored a spectacular goal to bring Real Madrid level. Barcelona had reason to be scared for the first time. Even an 83rd minute red card for Sergio Ramos couldn’t turn things around because two minutes later, Cristiano Ronaldo netted the match-winner.
Mood: Okay, that was bad. Real Madrid were better under Zinedine Zidane, but Barcelona should have still beat them. That was especially true at home, and with the Merengues down to 10 men.
No need to panic, though. A bad result, which came with a heaping of misfortune, only saw their lead in La Liga cut to six. Real Madrid may have been the best on this day, but there was no doubt who was the best in Clasico. Or Spain. Even Europe.
April 5, 2-1 vs. Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid visited the Camp Nou for the Champions League, bringing the two biggest clubs from the capital to Barcelona in a span of four days. But when you’re playing for La Liga and the Champions League, you expect to take on the best.
The visitors were the better team in the early going and Diego Simeone’s tactical changes in the 20th minute made them even more dominant.Fernando Torres scored and Barcelona were behind at home. But as Torres taketh away, Torres giveth, and he picked up a 35th minute red card.
With Atletico down to 10 men, Barcelona went into hyper drive. Simeone’s men defended for dear life and did pretty well, but Suarez proved to be too much. The Uruguayan scored in the 53rd and 74th minutes to bring Barcelona back for the win. The Catalans were going to the second leg 2-1 up.
Mood: This tie became a problem. Atletico Madrid were better when the two sides were at full strength and even if Barcelona won, they had only done so by one goal while giving up an away goal. Now the Catalans had to at least draw at the Calderon, despite getting to play 55 minutes up a man in the first leg.
It was getting messy.
April 9, 0-1 at Real Sociedad
It took all of five minutes for Barcelona to fall behind. Mikel Oyarzabal did the honors as the 18-year-old dug the Catalans an early hole.
Being behind wasn’t much of a problem for a team with Messi, Suarez and Neymar, but on this day it was. Maybe it was because Suarez missed the match through suspension, but Messi and Neymar are good for a goal, right? Wrong.
Barcelona had more than 70 percent possession in the first half, but that didn’t matter. Neither did the Catalans’ 13 shots to Sociedad’s five, or that Oyarzabal’s goal was the home side’s only shot on target.
Mood: HELP! Barcelona hadn’t won at Real Sociedad since 2007 and not having Suarez hurt, but this wasn’t a single bad result. Now there are a run of them. It was the third league match in a row for Barcelona without a win.
The lead in La Liga was down to three points and there was a real race on. This wasn’t a cute joke of Atletico getting back into things anymore. They were really in it. There was now a fight to be had.
Messi hadn’t scored in four matches either. It had been five years since that last happened. Nothing was making sense.
April 13, 0-2 at Atletico Madrid
A draw would do. Suarez may have deserved a suspension for kicking out in the first leg, but UEFA didn’t hand him one so they had their potent striker. The lethal frontline was intact. Things were going to turn around.
Atletico’s defending absolutely destroyed the Barcelona attack, though. Messi, Suarez and Neymar couldn’t get a touch in the final third and if they did, they weren’t facing the goal. There wasn’t a chance to be had.
Then Antoine Griezmann headed one home in the 36th minute and Barcelona were in trouble. The tie was 2-2 on aggregate, with Atleti having the edge in away goals. Barcelona needed to find the back of the net.
Unfortunately, Barcelona couldn’t even sniff the goal. They had all of the ball, but never in a dangerous place. Chances were non-existent and then Griezmann added a late penalty to put the home side in front. Simeone’s men now led 3-2 on aggregate and Barcelona needed a goal just to force extra time.
An Andres Iniesta cross was handled by Diego Godin in the box and while the referee spotted it, he said it was outside the area. The Catalans only were awarded a free kick, not a deserved penalty. Considering all of the breaks the referees had given them in the tie, it wasn’t entirely unfair, but it was certainly a bad call and their last chance.
The final whistle went and Barcelona were out of the Champions League.