Barcelona had the opportunity to reclaim the summit of La Liga on Saturday, to dwell there for a little over 24 hours, at least. The possibility appeared to afflict them with vertigo. Barca’s gathering momentum of recent weeks stalled, their fluency deserted them, and an immediate concern after losing at home to Malaga, 1-0, is how morale might be affected as they go into their UEFA Champions League knockout tie against Manchester City, and the first leg on Tuesday.
"Defeats hurt and it is hard to get over them," acknowledged Luis Enrique, the Barcelona head coach, "but at least we have a big game now to put our minds to, put this behind us." Before Barcelona set off for England, they may have to watch Real Madrid, who play Sunday at Elche, extend the gap between first and second in the table to four points.
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Not for the first time this season, Barcelona had a chance to catch up and blew it. A run of 11 successive wins, across league and Copa del Rey, ended abruptly. An error early in the game from Dani Alves, who failed to deal adequately with a long clearance from the Malaga goalkeeper, Carlos Kameni, gave Malaga the advantage and though Barcelona responded to the setback with patience and calm, and their customary high share of possession, they offered startlingly little actual menace. "We weren’t at the level we expected, we couldn’t find the spaces against a Malaga who deserve praise for their effectiveness," concluded Luis Enrique. "The responsibility is everybody’s, mine above all."
The mistake may have been Alves’, but an image of impotence after that would be carried most conspicuously by Luis Suarez, Barca’s No. 9. He goes to Manchester, and back to England, this week as the Premier League’s last Footballer of the Year, but a long way from that status after his first half-year in Spain. Last season, Suarez scored 33 times for Liverpool, to whom Barca paid more than $128 million for him last July. His total so far in La Liga for Barca is four from 14 matches.
Although 2015 has been kinder to him than were his first three months as a Barcelona player, Saturday was an afternoon of repeated frustrations, his face a picture of exasperation. Referee Juan Martinez Munuera was deaf to his appeals for free-kicks in his favor, and alert to infringements committed by the Uruguayan. Suarez certainly had the sympathy of the stadium, when he was set up by Lionel Messi with a genuine goal-scoring opportunity with 12 minutes remaining. A tight offside decision interrupted him, one that television replays suggested was incorrect.
Malaga defended deep, and marked Suarez closely. At one point he sought to launch a counter-attack yet found himself too easily shrugged off the ball by Sergi Darder. Looking to wriggle into one of his favorite shooting positions, on the half-turn near the edge of the Malaga penalty area, he was then smothered by the attentions of Marcos Angeleri.
Worse, an unusually insipid finish from Suarez had indirectly led to Malaga’s goal. His header, aimed directly, unthreateningly at Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni gave Kameni the chance to launch his long drop-kick. Dani Alves, positioning himself beneath the high ball, connected clumsily, allowing Malaga’s Juanmi to chase and obliging Claudio Bravo, the Barca keeper, to try and master the no man’s land into which he was cast, having anticipated an Alves pass. Juanmi held all the aces in that duel, and, before a shocked Camp Nou crowd, Malaga went a goal ahead.
Barcelona found no reply for the next 84 minutes. That counts as a shock. They have usually scored freely at home since the turn of the year, whether or not Suarez — who did contribute a spectacular goal to last weekend’s 5-0 demolition of Levante — has been firing. Barca’s previous six outings at Camp Nou had yielded 20 goals. They had not spent 90 minutes with a blank next to their name since the damaging 1-0 defeat to Celta Vigo in early November.
But Malaga, who have now taken four points this season from Barcelona, have happened on a formula to blunt perhaps the most illustrious forward line in soccer, to stymie Messi, contain Neymar and make Suarez wonder at how different are the demands of the Spanish league compared to the English version he used to dominate. "We worked very hard and were very disciplined defensively," said Javi Gracia, the Malaga head coach. "You make a small error against this Barcelona, on the run of form they have been on, and you pay for it."
Poor Suarez. The last of few chances of the afternoon fell to him, a volley, from an angle, with a good sight of goal. He struck it hard and clean. Kameni simply moved to his right and pouched it comfortably and clutched the ball jealously. Suarez looked crestfallen. He will travel to the north of England hoping the place revives his best instincts.