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Barça’s Slipup: Shades of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle?

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A league tie between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid is often a fiesta of goals and carries a degree of unpredictability as to which side will emerge the winner.

This past weekend’s encounter at the Estadio Vincente Calderon in Madrid certainly did not fail to live up to the usual expectations of an Atleti-Barça match. Indeed the 4-3 final score in favor of Atletico Madrid was in line with the two types of results these matches produce, either a one goal difference game or a blowout (if you’re curious Atletico won 4-2 at home last season but lost 6-0 two seasons back).

It almost seems that the first meeting between the two clubs at Camp Nou in Barcelona, where los blaugranas registered a resounding 6-1 thrashing, was a distant memory considering the recent lackluster form of Barça. And while some were dubbing this the second chapter of Messi vs. Agüero (winner Agüero this time), there were more urgent matters that emerged with the 4-3 loss sustained by Barcelona.

In its last three league matches, Barcelona have failed to register more than one point despite coming off an impressive unbeaten streak stretching back to their second league match that has now come to a dizzying crash at an untimely point in the season. A twelve point advantage over a crisis-hit Real Madrid in the winter has been shaved to a mere four points and despite Real Madrid’s midweek hiccup against Liverpool in the Champion’s League, los merengues look poised and ready to go for Barça’s jugular. That opportunity could come in the first weekend of May when Barça make their second visit to Madrid. But at the rate that the wheels are coming off, the classico at Estadio Bernabeu might entertain a more and more likely scenario where Barça are playing catch-up rather than vice-versa.

The spectacular slide and the current danger Barça find themselves in surrendering a league title that appeared all but won at Christmas is cause of great concern to a club trying to re-emerge not only from Real Madrid’s past two consecutive league titles, but also as a club that brands itself with fluid and attacking football. Perhaps Barcelona should pay close attention to football history beyond the Iberian peninsula. Certainly there are those in football today who pay little attention to what has happened in the past.

An example was Chelsea’s new manager Gus Hiddink announcing with some measured confidence that the Blues could overtake Manchester United and win the league this campaign despite the Blues sitting in third place. One has to wonder whether Hiddink’s statement was made more as a rallying call for his demoralized men or if he truly believes that Manchester United will actually drop points in the remaining league matches. Nothing in Manchester United’s form would suggest that a massive slip up is looming, especially after the Red Devils picked up their second major silverware on Sunday with a Carling Cup win at Wembley.

Moreover, if any club can point to history, it certainly is Manchester United. Many will remember how Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, with an almost unassailable and commanding 12 point advantage fell woefully apart to a resurging Manchester United back in the 1995-96 season. Pep Guardiola would do well to read into a bit of English history and analyze exactly what to avoid in following the same pitfalls that befell Newcastle in their inglorious fall from grace. While the two clubs are ill fit to be compared because each has a unique background and club history, the numeric advantage in the point table is not the only similarity shared.

Barça may be falling victim to their own legendary status as a team that must attack and score a plethora of goals in style just as Keegan’s Newcastle United were reputed for their exciting and attacking football. Certainly for a good part of November and December in this campaign, it was never a question if Barça would win, rather if it would be a five or four goal flogging.

Perhaps Barcelona have hit the top gear too early and are suffering a burn out. And it may be just my own sensitivities raised when I witness Barça losing 4-3 away to Atletico and recall that match played all those years ago in that 1995-96 season at Anfield where Newcastle United succumbed to a late Stan Collymore strike that gave Liverpool an unforgettable victory by the score of, you guessed it, 4-3. Coincidence perhaps, but should Barcelona’s title aspirations continue to slip beyond their grasp, one has to wonder if this past weekend’s loss at the Vicente Calderon was the landmark match where it all started to crumble and fall apart.

And while the loss to Liverpool at Anfield in that epic seven goal thriller, with Keegan hiding behind the ad board in grief and agony when it was all done, wasn’t the game that tilted the title in Manchester United’s favor, it certainly had a role in Newcastle’s abdication of their first league title since the 1926-27 season. Certainly for Barça fans the next few months will be riddled with anxiety. Pep Guardiola should recall his playing days when Barcelona had twice plucked the league title out of Real Madrid’s hands on the last match day, on both occasions Real Madrid surrendered the title to losses at Tenerife in the 1990-91 and 1991-92 season.

There is no reason why he or any one at Barça should feel that they are impervious to the same fortunes. Luckily for now, Barça still control their destiny albeit with only a four point cushion (as opposed to Hiddink’s unenviable position in simply crossing your fingers and hoping for the worst to happen to Manchester United).

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