Is Guardiola losing his Midas Touch?
It was always going to be difficult for Pep Guardiola to repeat last year’s astonishing achievements when Barcelona swept up six trophies.
Since adding the Club World Cup to their haul in December, they have started to look vulnerable, and, more recently, jaded.
Their exit from the King’s Cup in January was considered a blessing in disguise, allowing them to focus on the main prizes of La Liga and Europe, but February and March have not gone to plan.
They are still a massive 15 points ahead of third-placed Valencia, having only lost once all season, but they were knocked off the top of the standings on goal difference by their arch-rivals Real Madrid on Saturday.
While Real look to have the wind in their sails, Barca have at times appeared slow and predictable in their last few games with the 2-2 draw in Almeria the most recent slip-up. They have only won two of their last five matches in all competitions.
The godfather of Catalan football, Johan Cruyff, blasted from his weekly column in El Periodico on Monday: “Some members of the squad still aren’t pulling their weight.”
The most obvious targets are Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has scored twice in the last 11 games in all competitions, and France captain Thierry Henry, who has only managed three all season.
The almost forgotten Bojan Krkic has also scored only three, leaving Lionel Messi and Pedro to carry the goal-scoring burden, but the squad have struggled in other departments too.
With injuries and suspensions sidelining Gerard Pique, Daniel Alves, Eric Abidal and Seydou Keita, squad players such as Rafael Marquez, Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Maxwell and Yaya Toure have failed to impress and Guardiola has seemed reluctant to give them opportunities at other times.
Tactically, most opponents know now that the best way to stifle Barca is to pressure them at the back and in midfield, and they do not seem to have an effective Plan B to break out of this straightjacket.
Valencia visit on Sunday, and three days later they play the return leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against VfB Stuttgart, which is finely balanced at 1-1.
With ‘El Clasico’ at the Bernabeu only four weeks away, Guardiola has his work cut out to prevent the wheels from coming off the Barca bandwagon.