Barcelona saw their La Liga title aspirations take a serious hit after suffering a goalless draw against Villarreal at El Madrigal on Saturday night.
Another road game, another setback.
It has been the same story all year long; with Barca now having dropped 13 points in league play away from the Camp Nou this season.
The gap between the Catalans and bitter rivals Real Madrid now looms at an imposing seven points, obligating a near perfect run from the defending champs if they are to retain the La Liga crown.
Neither Villarreal brilliance, nor Barcelona complacency cost the blaugrana in this one, just heavy legs weighing down an injury-riddled squad.
With more players in the infirmary than on the bench, the team’s lack of depth finally got the better of them, as exhaustion became readily apparent on the faces of all those who took the field.
In spite of their insipid performance, Barcelona still had their chances to win it.
Dani Alves came close on 3 minutes, as the Brazilian marginally beat the offsides trap before firing an off-balance, slow roller to the near-post, forcing an awkward reaction save from the wrong-footed Diego Lopez.
Cani would return fire for the hosts just one minute later, as Victor Valdes was called into action to keep the game level.
Barca dominated possession in typical fashion and looked to have secured an early lead when Leo Messi streaked into the area and produced a magnificent chip over the head of the onrushing Diego Lopez, only to see it hang spinning in the air, bounce off the grass and squirm inches wide of the far-post.
Messi shook his head in disbelief that he pushed it wide, holding himself accountable for squandering what honestly was a difficult, off-balance chip over a quality keeper.
A fine piece of last-gasp defending from Javier Mascherano helped keep the hosts off the scoreboard, as Victor Valdes collided with Gerard Pique on Villarreal’s free kick, deflecting the ball to the goal line where Mascherano cleared with a rising header. Abidal did well to charge down Jose Luis Joselu on the rebound, sending the striker’s effort off his thigh and away from danger.
Victor Valdes would produce the save of the match in the 35th minute, denying Marcos Senna’s well-struck, first-time effort, with a diving save at the near-post.
The resulting corner saw Gonzalo Rodriguez’s header ruled off for a correct offsides decision against the hosts.
The second half kicked off with no changes for Barcelona, as the stagnant midfield of Mascherano, Busquets and Xavi continued struggling to find a rhythm and exert their influence over the game.
The yellow submarine saw a potential penalty shout denied just two minutes into the restart as Sergio Busquets bundled over a Villarreal striker on the touchline, but it was judged to have been inconsequential contact and no call was given.
The Catalans upped the pressure in the final thirty minutes and began pushing the hosts deeper into their own half, though remained unable to find the killer ball.
A sublime pass from Leo Messi looked to have put Cesc Fabregas in on goal, only for the midfielder’s heavy touch to push the ball away from him, allowing Diego Lopez to come off his line and smother.
With the game screaming for a creative influence and fresh legs, Pep Guardiola finally introduced Thiago and canterano Cristian Tello in the remaining quarter hour.
The change produced immediate results, as Tello’s surging pace down the left helped unlock the Villarreal defense.
After working his way to the touchline, the Barca B-team substitute delivered a smart cut back pass to the waiting Fabregas at the edge of the box, who, set himself up nicely before seeing his shot take a deflection on its way to goal.
The deviation looked to have sneaked past Lopez, only for the Spaniard to get a late hand to it and push the effort into the crossbar. Alexis couldn’t react quickly enough to the rebound, as the ball was miraculously cleared by the defense to safety.
With just five minutes to go, Alexis and Messi combined for a quick give-and-go, allowing the Argentine to break clean on goal from the left. But Lopez came out strong and successfully parried away the strike with a flailing leg save at the near-post.
The rebound fell squarely for Fabregas only for the ex-Gunner to send the put-back soaring woefully high over the bar from just ten yards out.
In the end there would be no last-gasp heroics from the defending champions, as they left El Madrigal punch-less and glooming, sitting seven points adrift of first place.
So what has gone wrong, exactly?
The team is, and truthfully has been scandalously thin ever since Josep Guardiola took over. He prefers less depth for the competitive nature in brings out in his players, who truly believe they all have a chance to start in nearly any position on a weekly basis.
But the body eventually breaks down on even the strongest-willed man and between Spain’s Euro Cup Championship of 2008, the World Cup triumph of 2010, constant call-ups for inane international friendlies, and Barcelona’s deep runs in Liga, Copa and Champions tournaments every year, the squad is simply tired.
They physically cannot keep up. Hamstring tears are a monthly, unwelcomed visitor to the locker room, legs are literally breaking down in the case of David Villa, and fatigue has set in on a squad level.
The fight is there, the mentality to win hasn’t vanished; just the ability to keep up at this team’s otherworldly, greatest of all time level.
Down, but not out, Barcelona begin preparations for next Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semi-final showdown against Valencia in La Mestalla.
Their meddle will surely be tested by a quality Valencia side conscious that the only legitimate shot at silverware this season for los che lies in besting a weary and wounded Barcelona side.
It’s moments like these when we discover what champions are made of.
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.
Full match highlights:
Villareal – Barcelona 0-0 Highlights HD 28.01.2012 by iNfRaS0NiC