MADRID: Barcelona’s defeat in the King’s Cup final means La Liga is their only chance of major silverware and anything other than a home win against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday would almost certainly end their dwindling title hopes. The 2-1 reverse to Real Madrid at Valencia’s Mestalla stadium on Wednesday capped a nightmare seven days for Barca, during which they were dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid and crashed to a shock 1-0 La Liga loss at lowly Granada. With five games of the domestic season remaining, surprise leaders Atletico, who host struggling Elche on Friday (1830 GMT), are top on 82 points, three ahead of second-placed Real, whose game at Real Valladolid has been moved to May 7, and four clear of champions Barca.
The Catalan club’s failures have piled the pressure on coach Gerardo Martino, who is in his first season in charge at the Nou Camp, and prompted suggestions the current squad is in need of a radical overhaul before next season. Argentine Martino has a contract until the end of next term but appears doomed to become the first Barca coach to end a campaign without a major trophy since 2007-08. Wednesday’s defeat also marked the first time they have lost three matches in a row since the beginning of 2003.
They have dominated possession in key matches in customary fashion, and did so again against Real, but have struggled to create chances for proven goal scorers like Lionel Messi and Neymar and have been undone on the counter attack or conceded soft goals from set pieces. Neymar did have a chance to level the Cup final at 2-2 a minute from time but his stabbed effort from inside the penalty area crashed back off a post with Iker Casillas well beaten. It summed up Barca’s night and their recent run of ill-luck when the ball ricocheted straight into the Real goalkeeper’s hands instead of to one of the waiting Barca players.
Small details “The result is a little deceptive,” Barca captain Xavi told reporters. “The game got away from us due to the little details, mistakes we made,” the Spain international added. “We have to be united now to turn this around because on Sunday we have another war.” Bilbao are fourth, 16 points behind Barca, and with a six-point lead over fifth-placed Sevilla are well placed to secure a place in Champions League qualifying for next season.
The Basque club will smell blood after Barca’s recent stumbles and will be hoping for a repeat their 1-0 win at the San Mames in December. Goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz warned against expecting an easy ride on Sunday (1900), however. “We mustn’t forget that we are talking about Barcelona,” he told a news conference on Wednesday. “About players who have won all the titles you possibly can and who have the ability to win any match,” he added. “We have to treat them as they deserve, as they will do with us as they know the effort we put into each game.” Martino looks certain to be without left back Jordi Alba after the Spain international was forced off at halftime in the Cup final with a thigh muscle problem and replaced by Adriano. Alba, who has already been sidelined twice this season with similar complaints, would have further tests yesterday to determine the extent of the injury, Barca said on their website (www.fcbarcelona.es). — Reuters