Barca’s Champs League exit adds to post-Pep slide

MADRID (AP) While it may be too soon to call Barcelona’s Champions League exit the end of an era, the Spanish champion doesn’t seem to have recovered from former coach Pep Guardiola’s departure two seasons ago.

Barcelona lost 1-0 at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, failing to reach the semifinals of Europe’s top competition for the first time in seven seasons.

Even with Lionel Messi and Neymar in the starting lineup, Barcelona’s attack had no reply to Atletico’s well-organized defense. Barcelona’s defense was in disarray early on and could have trailed 3-0 by the 20th-minute if the woodwork had not saved it twice.

Andres Iniesta was left grumbling about coach Gerardo Martino, whose decision to play Messi on the right side left him looking disinterested. Statistics revealed only the two goalkeepers were less active than the Argentina forward in the match.

The figures showed he ran nearly 6.9 kilometers (4.3 miles) in the match – the least among all the starting outfield players and a long way off the game-high of 12.3 kilometers (7.6 miles) covered by Atletico midfielder Koke, who scored the lone goal.

Barcelona now must focus on trying to retain its league title – it trails Atletico by one point with six games to play – and the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid on Wednesday.

”A disaster? At some level it is, because this was a team that could have advanced further,” Martino said.

Barcelona’s worst Champions League showing since 2007 came as Guardiola guided defending champion Bayern Munich into the semifinals with ease, as he did while leading Barcelona to a pair of European Cups during his 2008-’12 spell in charge of his boyhood club.

Last season, Bayern dispatched Barcelona at the semifinal stage with a 7-0 aggregate victory.

Neither Neymar nor Messi responded to the pressures of the club’s most important match of the season, even though Messi did manage to create Barcelona’s two best scoring opportunities in the first half.

”We didn’t want Messi to participate in the game but to exploit space on the right side and create from the counter,” Martino explained.

Even Iniesta was left scratching his head over Barcelona’s tactics after being replaced by Pedro Martinez in the 72nd minute.

”I was surprised that I came off,” Iniesta said. ”But that’s the coach’s decision.”

Guardiola left because he feared losing control of the dressing room as it became harder to motivate his players, who were being touted as leading perhaps the greatest team of all time due to the 14 trophies won in four seasons under his guidance.

Successor Tito Vilanova failed to maintain Guardiola’s momentum as he battled cancer, which ultimately led him to abandon the position, and the club scrambled for a replacement last summer when Martino was signed.

Neymar’s arrival last summer has meanwhile been accompanied by off-the-pitch headaches that include charges of tax fraud and a FIFA transfer ban over the club’s signing of youth players. The charges have marred the image of the club and are likely to make its offseason planning very difficult – with a new goalkeeper and center back needed.

Still, Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano remained optimistic the Catalan club could finish the season with some silverware. It also hosts Atletico at the Camp Nou in the league finale.

”We have to learn from this. We have to lift our heads quickly,” the Argentina international said. ”We can’t dwell on tonight. We are the responsible ones, but we still have the possibility of winning two titles this season.”

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