When La Liga 2013/14 began back in August, who wouldn’t have settled for going into the final match of the season needing to beat Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou to take the title? Following last season’s runaway league, there was a need for a closer race this year to restore some emotion. We have had a rough and bumpy ride over the last nine months but the highs and lows will have been worth it if we can pip Atlético at the post and take our fifth league title in the last six seasons.
Many have questioned whether Barça deserve to win the league after some of the not-so-great performances in recent weeks, but we should remember the league campaign as a whole. We began our defence of the title brilliantly with a 7-0 demolition of Levante and then took a record full points from the first eight games which included a valiant 2-3 win at Valencia and a splendid 4-1 victory over Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. We slipped up with a draw at Osasuna in the ninth game but then beat Real Madrid at Camp Nou and went on to with the next four games. After 14 games we had 40 points, three ahead of Atlético and five ahead of Madrid. Members of the Barça board who now wish to sell Alexis and Cesc Fabregas should remember how well the two played in this first third of the season with Alexis scoring eight goals including vital winners against Sevilla, Madrid and Espanyol.
The first league defeat came in December against Athletic Club, though with key players Valdés, Alves, Alba and Messi all out injured a 1-0 loss at the new San Mames was not the biggest surprise. Barça then ended 2013 with wins over Villarreal and Getafe. In January the 0-0 draw at Atlético was followed by a draw at Levante and this allowed Real Madrid the chance to cut the gap at the top but Barça were still above Atlético on goal difference with Madrid a point behind.
It was then that Sandro Rosell’s resignation arrived and this coincided with a deterioration that saw Barça lose three of the next seven games, at home to Valencia and away at Real Sociedad and Valladolid. The drop in form may have been part of our traditional February slump but the behind-the-scenes instability did little to help. The team responded with seven wins from the next eight games including breathtaking victories at Real Madrid and Villarreal. The defeat at Granada was extremely disappointing but in part it could be put down to the many injuries at the time which saw Busquets playing as emergency centre-back and to the effort of the Champions League quarter-final with Atlético and the distraction of the approaching Copa del Rey final.
Fortunately, the exertion of three competitions has also taken its toll on our rivals and this had led to the incredible failure of the three top teams in the last couple of weeks. While Barça have only managed draws against Getafe and Elche, Atlético lost at Levante then drew at home to Malaga, and Madrid have fallen out of the race after draws with Valencia and Valladolid and defeat at Celta. Barça have also suffered the emotions of the tragic death of Tito Vilanova but despite everything we are still in with a shout going into the final game.
Saturday’s title decider offers the chance for a spectacular end to the season and for Tata Martino the opportunity to finish his year at the club with a league title to add to last summer’s Supercopa. Martino has had his fair share of criticism but considering the circumstances that led to him joining the club after the preseason had begun, he can be said to have done a pretty good job. Perhaps he underestimated the press here who were at him as early as the fifth game when Barça continued the 100% start to the season with a 0-4 win at Rayo Vallecano. The fact that Barça failed to dominate possession in that game was highlighted and one has to wonder if the pressure on Martino over the style affected his decisions later. Besides that there has been the occasional incomprehensible decision with team selection such as his failed experiment in the defeat at Real Sociedad and it is probable that his failure to confirm his future at the club led to him losing some authority in the dressing room. However, he has not been helped by Rosell’s resignation or by the board’s lack of tact in getting caught meeting Luis Enrique.
Martino has always come across as honest and dignified but his reputation as a coach, at least in Europe, may hang unfairly on this one game. Failure to beat Atlético will no doubt see an unceremonious departure for the Argentine coach but victory will earn an unforgettable triumph in what right now can be considered the toughest league in the world.