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Can Barca overcome daunting odds?

FOX Soccer: Analysis from Milan's 2-0 victory over Barcelona.
FOX Soccer: Analysis from Milan's 2-0 victory over Barcelona.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It only took 11 days for Barcelona’s season to unravel.

A 2-0 loss away to AC Milan on Feb. 20; a 3-1 loss at home to Real Madrid on Feb. 26; and then, horror of horrors, a second straight loss to Real on Mar. 2, 2-1 away this time.

Their manager Tito Vilanova went down to a terrible disease for the second time in December. He’s recovering from his cancer in New York. There had been no hiccups last summer when Vilanova replaced the all-conquering Josep Guardiola, when the latter bowed out and the assistant became the head coach. The machine had run as smoothly as ever. But soon after he took his temporary leave to undergo chemotherapy, leaving his own assistant Jordi Roura in charge, Barca’s season was in tatters.

The possession is still there; so are the style and the grace. But the efficiency that made all the fancy stuff sustainable has been lost. Against lowly Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday, Barca needed a lot of help from a bungling Deportivo goalie and the malpractice of its defense to scratch out a 2-0 win. That made it an uncharacteristically low four goals scored over their last four games. And the shutout they earned was their first in 14 games.

Still, they’ll have a chance to make amends and to save their season. The Catalans will try to keep alive the dynasty that saw them win 14 major trophies over the last four seasons and reach the UEFA Champions League semifinals an astonishing five times in a row while keeping their challengers from usurping their perch atop the hill.

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They’ll have to beat a stodgy Milan at home by three goals on Tuesday (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET), an almost impossible task. Their opponents will bunker in, as is their preference and expertise. They’re sitting pretty on a two-goal lead after all. So why should do they do anything else? They’ll mostly concern themselves with preventing goals, while letting the swift and lethal Stephan El Shaarawy run rampant when Barca overplays its hand and pushes too high. Barca has to come at them and Milan knows it. When they do, they’ll be waiting for them. They’ll lure them in, allow them to get comfortable in their half and try to strike on the counter-attack.

If Barca fail, they’ll be out of the Copa del Rey and out of Europe too. Their archrivals Real would have bested them continentally for the first time in years, since they’re already through to the quarterfinals after sneaking past Manchester United.

If Barca fails in the Champions League they’ll still win something year. The breach they smashed between themselves and their rivals in the La Liga table when the going was still good is sufficiently large to survive any slump. Second-placed Real or third-placed Atletico Madrid will not close the respective 13 and 14-point gaps over the last 11 games. Barca will re-take the Spanish league title from Real Madrid and yet their air of superiority and invincibility, something so precious and rare in sport at this level, will have dissipated. Their title will be a remnant of another time, the residue of their erstwhile dominance. There will be nothing special about them anymore.

They’ll need to rebuild. Long-time goalkeeper Victor Valdes has already announced his departure at the end of the season. The backline is a shambles. Xavi, the team’s on-field brain trust, just turned 33 and his eventual succession should be put on the agenda.

Real-mouthpiece Marca, ever eager to fan the flames, writes of discord in the Barca camp, of team-meals intended to lighten the mood.

Star forward Lionel Messi, the crown jewel in Barca’s crown, seemed to acknowledge as much at a recent promotional event. “It’s obvious that we need to give a bit more,” he said, according to a Reuters report. “We know what the problems were in the defeats, it’s something we have talked about in the dressing room and it has to stay there.”

“We have been losing recently and we know what we have to do to change,” spoke Messi, adding that Vilanova’s illness had “affected us a great deal and I think it has taken its toll when we have been out on the pitch.”

“But this is a strong dressing room and we cannot lay the blame there,” Messi said. “We know it will be difficult but we have faith.”

They had better. Because if they fail, Tuesday might mark the day Barca’s long summer came to an end.

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