Having steamrollered their way to a treble last season, FC Barcelona looked set to continue their dominance spearheaded by their forward trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar (MSN). Indeed, this year has largely been a procession as Luis Enrique's men embarked on a record-breaking run of 39 games unbeaten, adding the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup to their overflowing trophy cabinet with minimal fuss.
There seemed to be precious little any side could do as Barcelona marched relentlessly towards another trophy-laden season before the wheels promptly fell off. Their eight- point advantage in the La Liga has been whittled down to just three after two consecutive defeats to Real Madrid and Real Sociedad. Worst yet, Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid conducted a master class in how to stifle and defeat Barca as they knocked the holders out of the Champions League. Even the Copa Del Rey final in a little over a month against Sevilla is not a foregone conclusion for the Blaugrana in their current spluttering form.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason behind their dramatic form collapse however there are three factors that have certainly affected what previously appeared to be an unstoppable Barcelona side.
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Given how Barcelona's form fell off a cliff after the international break, fatigue was an obvious factor, especially given their front three were all involved in the South American World Cup qualifiers.
On top of having to travel halfway across the globe, Suarez, Messi and Neymar were heavily involved in two hard fought qualifiers over the span of just five days before returning back to Spain. Having scored a collective 84 goals in 40 games in both La Liga and the Champions League, MSN only managed to strike twice from their next four games.
Barcelona's sustained success also means they are involved in a lot more competitions compared to most other teams. With 46, 42 and 41 appearances so far this season for Suarez, Messi and Neymar respectively in the Barcelona shirt alone, it is unsurprising that the Catalans have begun to slow down.
With talisman Messi enduring his longest goal drought since 2010 as he waits for his 500th goal for Barcelona, it is apparent that both mental and physical fatigue look to have taken its toll on the Catalan giants in what has been an exhausting season.
Fresh legs could make a world of a difference as the season moves into the business end.
Insufficient Squad Depth
While Barcelona are spoilt for choice between the posts with Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the same cannot be said for their other positions.
Despite their famed La Masia academy, there have been few players who have made the step up in recent times. Only midfielder Sergi Roberto has come through as Barcelona have let forwards like Alexis Sanchez, Bojan and Gerard Deulofeu depart in recent years. In fact, their decision to let Pedro leave for Chelsea in the summer looks flawed especially since Munir is their only alternative in a forward position.
The great thing about having three genuine bona fide superstars in their prime is that they can effectively win games on their own yet the reverse is also true. Barcelona have become utterly dependent on their front three to make the difference game after game.
In La Liga, the next highest scorer has been Ivan Rakitic with a measly five goals. Staggeringly, Messi alone has more shots on goal than the rest of his team combined if Suarez and Neymar are taken out of the equation.
While Barca have been fortunate in terms of injuries suffered this season, they have precious few options if any of their strikers get injured. Not only has this caused the abovementioned burnout and fatigue among their forwards, but Barcelona's current fragility adds to the perception that they are one bad tackle away from ending their season with a whimper.
Having been the dominant team over the last decade and winning all that there is to be won, there is little left for the current crop of Barcelona players to prove. Key players like Pique (29), Alves (32), Iniesta (31), Mascherano (31) and even Messi (28) are moving towards the end of their careers with medal hauls that few in the game can even come close to.
With the media at large to shower them with accolades, it is perhaps inevitable that a small part of them might assume just showing up in their famous red and blue jersey was enough to win.
Yet, during their recent Champions League display against Atletico, it was the players from Madrid who simply seemed to want it more. Chasing every ball, snarling into every tackle and putting their bodies on the line, there was this fundamental hunger, this additional edge Barcelona seem to lack in recent games that might have cost them dearly over the last few weeks.
Having set the bar for excellence for such a long time, it is inevitable that every misstep is examined with a microscope yet, with the La Liga and the Copa Del Rey still up for grabs, it is up to Luis Enrique to ensure that this mini-slump in form does not become something far more pronounced.
To end the season with just a double isn't that bad after all, even for Barcelona.
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