Granada held on to a 16th minute goal from Yacine Brahimi to leave Barça’s league title chances seriously dented at Los Cármenes tonight. Having been dumped out of the Champions League on Wednesday, Tata Martino’s men failed to lift themselves for the challenge and despite managing a total of 26 shots, not one of them could get past Granada’s Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis who only played because first choice Roberto Fernández failed a late fitness test.
Given that Barça were already depleted in central defence through the injuries to Bartra, Piqué and Puyol, it seemed a strange decision for Martino also to rest his first-choice full-backs Alves and Alba. The Barça coach had the option of bringing in Adriano at centre back which would have meant the fewest changes elsewhere as he could have started with a back four of Alves, Mascherano, Adriano and Alba with Busquets as defensive midfield pivot. Instead the defence was formed by Montoya, Busquets, Mascherano and Adriano with Song coming into midfield.
It shouldn’t have mattered, right? This was only Granada and we still had Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Pedro and Fabregas to do the business. Unfortunately none of the forwards had their day, Messi was more active than on Wednesday but he was off target more often than on, though twice he was denied by Karnezis, once with a splendid leap across goal to keep out a second-half free-kick. Neymar looked more dangerous but he wasted the best chances, twice hitting shots wide from good positions then failing to get enough power on his shot near the end after Alexis flicked the ball through, which allowed Ilori to clear off the line. Pedro slipped before his best chance after a good assist from Messi, and Fabregas’s best effort after Neymar’s nod-down was well stopped by Karnezis. Even Iniesta had four opportunities but he failed to find the target with three shots, and completely missed the ball when Pedro appeared to have played the perfect ball for him.
Given Granada’s defensive approach Montoya also got forward at every opportunity and it should be said that despite his finishing not being great, in the first half especially, he was the player showing most spirit. Unfortunately, when Song was caught out high up the field in the 16th minute, it was Montoya who was chasing the speeding Brahimi when Fran Rico played the pass through. Montoya appeared to be level but Brahimi held off his challenge and clipped the ball past Pinto.
There were still 75 minutes to react and this wasn’t Atlético Madrid that we had to break down. It’s true that Granada had nine men playing deep behind the ball and Barça certainly didn’t lack shooting opportunities, but too many efforts were blocked or went wide, and the few good chances we created were wasted.
It’s fair to say that once in a while a small team beats a big team after heroically defending the only goal of the game, but it’s probably also fair to say on many of those occasions it’s because the small team believes more strongly in the victory than the big team. After 30 minutes tonight, when Neymar began to get involved in a stupid feud with Iturra, there was already the feeling that the defeat was inevitable. The Brazilian was also very fortunate to only receive a yellow card just before half time for kicking Nyom.
The mood seemed to run through the team. They were trying, but they weren’t dying for the cause, almost as if they were convinced of their fate. As against Atlético, Martino only bothered with two substitutions, this time bringing on Alba and Alexis for Adriano and Busquets. The second change was more adventurous but there was a lack of bite in attack to find the equalizer. The switches also meant that Song was moved back into defence and he was beaten by El Arabi in practically Granada’s only attack of the second half but Pinto came to the rescue to prevent further embarrassment.
Some may talk about bad luck but for me it’s more about belief. Mascherano’s post-match comment of “that’s football” suggests the players aren’t facing up to their failings. Martino failed to lift the team after the defeat on Wednesday and there is a definite lack of spark. The league should by no means be over, especially after all the ups and downs in the title race so far, but it is becoming difficult to believe in the chances of the team when they don’t seem to believe in themselves. There is a chance for redemption on Wednesday with the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid. It may be the last chance to turn the season around and this is hardly the best preparation. However, few believed we could win at the Bernabéu last month and we did. After such a topsy-turvy season I wouldn’t be surprised by anything now.
Granada: Karnezis; Nyom, Ilori, Murillo (Mainz m91), Foulquier; Recio, Iturra, Fran Rico; Piti (Coeff m77), El-Arabi, Brahimi (Bravo m65).
Barça: Pinto 5.5; Montoya 6, Busquets 5 (Alexis m73, 5.5), Mascherano 5, Adriano 5 (Alba m67, 5.5); Fabregas 5, Song 5, Iniesta 6; Pedro 5, Messi 5, Neymar 5.
Goal: m16 Brahimi 1-0.
Yellow cards: m45 Neymar, m65 Messi, m66 Busquets