Five reasons for Barcelona’s dramatic dip

No team has retained the Champions League, in its modern form, and Barcelona exit at the hands of Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid, a 3-2 aggregate score, has ensured the continuation of the curse on defending champions.

Messi and Neymar had no answer to the stonewall defence of Atletico Madrid.   -  Bongarts/Getty Images

No team has retained the Champions League, in its modern form, and Barcelona exit at the hands of Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid, a 3-2 aggregate score, has ensured the continuation of the curse on defending champions.

A 2-0 defeat at the Vicente Calderon was Barca’s third in four games after a 39-match unbeaten run stretching back the previous six months.

Let’s look at the five reasons for the Catalans’ nosedive in form.

Fatigue:

The Spanish giants have played in six competitions since mid-August and have used a relatively small core group of players. This has finally begun to take hold on a Barca squad that was also affected by a transfer ban last summer, which delayed big money signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal’s involvement until January.

Barca has played 56 games already this season, including a mid-season trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. By contrast, Atletico has played 48 matches and Real Madrid 43.

The Catalans were overrun by Real in the final stages as their losing run began in El Clasico on April 2 and lacked the physical freshness to break down the mass ranks of Real Sociedad and Atletico’s defence in the past week.

Tough run-in

Just as Barca has waned physically, it also faced its most difficult run of the season with two gruelling games against Atletico and Real’s visit to the Camp Nou mixed in with a trip to high-flying Villarreal and a visit to Sociedad’s Anoeta, where it had its last four league games.

Barca has won just one of those five, and was lucky to even do that as Fernando Torres’s sending-off turned the first leg against Atletico with Los Rojiblancos leading 1-0 at the time.

A three-point lead over Atletico with just six games to go means Barca is still strong favourites to retain the La Liga title, principally because its calendar eases up significantly in the final weeks of the season.

Messi magic dries up?

Five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi has now failed to score the last seven times Barca has been eliminated from the Champions League.

Messi started 2016 on fire with 24 goals in his first 19 games of the year after a stunning 2015 that elevated him back above Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo to reclaim the Ballon d’Or.

Yet, he has been held scoreless in Barca’s five-game wobble since and has continually dropped deeper, further away from the opposition area to try and make a difference as a playmaker without success.

However, with teammates of the calibre of Suarez and Neymar who get on the score sheet almost every game, Messi alone can’t be the source of goals.

International break

Barca’s record unbeaten run was ended in its first game after the March international break as its momentum was stalled by a two-week layoff whilst the majority of its squad jetted around the world.

Of the Barca 11 that started El Clasico, six had represented their country in South American World Cup qualifiers in the previous week.

The inopportune timing of the break just as the business end of the club season begins has been questioned by Europe’s biggest clubs and has only added to Barca’s fatigue in an extremely demanding season.

Weak squad

Despite Barca’s obvious signs of fatigue, coach Luis Enrique has used his full complement of three substitutions just twice in the last five games.

With the star front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar taking up a huge chunk of Barca’s wage bill, there wasn’t enough spare cash to reinforce the squad with a fourth striker as Enrique wanted in January.

Moreover, expensive signings like Turan, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen have only contrived to make a negative impact.

Mathieu’s introduction for Gerard Pique with Barca leading 2-0 at Villarreal changed the game as the Frenchman scored an own goal to earn the host a point.

Meanwhile, Turan endured a torrid return to the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday having left Atletico last summer in his own words to “win the Champions League.”