We woke up last Sunday to headlines saying “La Liga is over” and “Barça say goodbye to the league” following the 2-2 draw with Getafe. Remarkably, in less than a week, slips from our rivals have put our destiny back in our hands and Barça can now clinch the title with two wins from the remaining two games, at Elche tomorrow (Sunday 7pm) and then next week at Camp Nou against Atlético Madrid.
I’ll be the first to admit I had thrown in the towel when Ángel Lafita scored Getafe’s injury time equalizer last Saturday. Many years of watching football should have taught me never to give up while there are still mathematical possibilities but I take comfort in knowing I was not alone in my pessimism. The fact that most fans and journalists saw no hope is perhaps understandable as few could imagine that Atlético would lose at Levante and that Madrid would fail to beat either Valencia or Valladolid.
Barça fans, especially the locals in Barcelona, are a funny lot sometimes. I have already talked about the opinion poll last Monday with 83% saying that if Barça have no options to win the title we should let Atlético beat us if it stops Madrid from winning the title. Thankfully, Valladolid seem to have put an end to that possible scenario, but the most extreme anti-Madrid sentiment combined with Barça pessimism was demonstrated by a Barça fan reasoning to me yesterday that “as Atlético are going to win the league anyway, Barça should lose to Elche so that Atlético can win the league this week and then rest players against Barça in order to prepare better to beat Madrid in Lisbon“. Paranoid logic or what?
More worrying than the peculiar idiosyncrasies of some fans is the fact that the players and Tata Martino also seemed to have given up after the Getafe match with the coach taking responsibility for the failure and Xavi, Busquets and Bartra all looking towards next season’s preparation. The club directors have done little to help the situation by getting caught in a not-so-secret meeting with Luis Enrique while the constant rumours in the press about the future of some players only leads to more internal instability.
Having seemingly turned off it may now be difficult for the players to reconnect to the idea of fighting for the title. There were two first-team dinners this week – on Wednesday Martino invited the players and on Thursday Dani Alves celebrated his 31st birthday – which will surely have been used as a bonding exercise to get everybody on board for the final challenge, though if the team now fails against Elche it will no doubt be seen by some as a case of the players partying when they should have been concentrating on the task.
Martino has named the entire first team squad except for Victor Valdés for the trip to Elche. Neymar, Puyol, Piqué, Alba and Dos Santos are all still injured which means we are likely to start again with Pinto in goal, Alves, Bartra, Mascherano and Adriano in defence, Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta in midfield and a front three of Alexis, Messi and Pedro. For players involved in transfer rumours such as Alexis, Alves and Fabregas, who seems likely to feature at some point tomorrow, it will be a chance to show their value. If their desire is to stay at the club, then what better way than to put in a decisive performance that helps us take the title?
Elche sit in 14th place in the table on 39 points, but with just a game at Sevilla to follow tomorrow’s game Fran Escribá’s men are still in danger of relegation. Despite their lowly position Elche’s home form in 2014 suggests they will be very tough opponents. They are unbeaten in nine games at the Martinez Valero stadium this year though perhaps the most impressive statistic is they have only conceded two goals in those nine games. Ex-blaugrana centre-back Alberto Botia is suspended tomorrow along with second-choice keeper Toño after both received red cards in last week’s 0-1 win at Malaga. If you haven’t seen it, check out Garay Rodrigues’ incredible goal in that game.
Such a bullet tomorrow could well finish us, though having taken so many body blows in recent weeks I feel now we will take this to the finish. It’s easy to remember how we blew it at Valladolid or Granada but fate has given us another opportunity and I think the players will respond with a win tomorrow that will leave all to play for next weekend in a nail-biting climax to the season at Camp Nou.
Elche: Manu Herrera; Damien Suarez, Lomban, Pelegrin, Cisma; Carlos Sanchez, Ruben Perez; Coro, Javi Marquez, Garay Rodrigues; Boakye.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Prediction: Elche 0 Barça 3
Date: Sunday 11 May 2014. Kick-off 7 pm local time.