Is Luis Enrique the right man to lead Barcelona through this unusual time?
If ever there was a night for Barcelona to flex their muscles, Sunday was it. New year, new statement. To answer the latest institutional setback, of which the club have experienced several in 2014, what better than a bold show of defiance and self-sufficiency? A rare defeat for Real Madrid earlier in the day had ushered Barcelona towards Real Sociedad’s Anoeta stadium with a chance to go top of La Liga. Win at Real Sociedad, and Barcelona would leapfrog Madrid on their return from the winter break.
And Barca blew it, big time. They did so in circumstances that mean head coach Luis Enrique will spend the coming days counting his alibis nervously. There cannot be any fresh alibis, either, in the form of signings in the January transfer window, because just a week ago Barcelona’s appeal against a 12-month Fifa ban on incoming transfers was upheld by the court of arbitration for sport, TAS. Barca were found to have infringed regulations on the recruitment of non-European nationals under the age of 18 last year, and the punishment and appeal process has been rocking back and forth. The December 30 verdict by TAS will echo heavily around Camp Nou.
But Luis Enrique can hardly cite that as a current handicap. He commands a lavish squad, and the line-up he selected for the fixture of a calendar year might have been interpreted as an indignant demonstration of Barcelona’s theoretical depth of resources. It contained eleven internationals. He still left out Lionel Messi. He still omitted Neymar. He still left Gerard Pique alongside those two superstars among the substitutes. He still assigned Dani Alves a seat on the bench.
That quartet then watched Barcelona make a catastrophic start. One-nil down, to a Jordi Alba own goal from a cross to the near post after barely a minute, Barcelona were insipid in attack until half-time. This may not be a squad that looks like it need an injection of pizazz or worldliness from a winter transfer market they are barred from; it should not be a Barcelona that reaches for yet another $70m-plus striker next summer, but the evidence from the Anoeta was that, up against well-organized defenses likes La Real’s, it is a Barca who very easily turn into a predictable attacking force without the mercurial moments of Neymar or Messi.
Luis Suarez? Accompanied by a jittery Munir, the latest graduate from the Barcelona youth system to have made a promising start in the first team but then faded, and by Pedro, whose good recent form - he had six goals from his previous six matches – deserted him, Suarez had one of his worst nights in a Barcelona jersey. Naturally, he worked feverishly, but his touch and passing were poor. The Uruguayan has only one league goal from nine matches since completing the ban that delayed his Barca debut. That would start to look like an issue for Barcelona if there were not so many other rippling concerns around the place.
Messi, introduced at half time, and Neymar, who came on ten minutes and later, and then Alves, the third replacement, improved Barcelona, but, as in four previous visits in the last five seasons to Real Sociedad, they could not recover the deficit and left San Sebastian defeated. So they still trail Madrid, who have a game in hand, in the table, and now feel the breath of Atletico down their necks, the champions having beaten Levante on Saturday to consolidate their third place, and reach the same points total, 38, as Barcelona, a point behind Madrid, whose 2-1 loss to Valencia, in fourth, ended a 22-game winning sequence.
Madrid looked fatigued, some players in need of the sort of rest Luis Enrique had given Neymar, Messi and Alves, a trio who had traveled to their native South America for the mid-season holiday. The difference between Luis Enrique’s rest-and-rotation policy and Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti’s determined faith in a clear eleven individuals he prefers to play every match if possible is pronounced. It also now has a subtext. Madrid can sign reinforcements if they fell they need. Barca aren’t allowed to.
"This was a defeat that was going to come sooner or later," said Ancelotti, after an impressive Valencia display. "We are still in a good position, and it is a long season." Having returned from the winter recess with the Club World Cup trophy, he, and Madrid, can digest their first defeat since September comfortably enough.
Luis Enrique is not so cozy with Barcelona’s turbulent situation. The transfer embargo means decisions on the futures of the likes of Dani Alves, whose contract expires in June, and Xavi, who had been measuring out a possible move to MLS this summer, are complicated by the fact Barcelona cannot now go out and search for replacements for these senior players.
And the question now begins to be murmured around Camp Nou: Is Luis Enrique the coach to be trusted with overseeing this unusual 12-month period? Is the man who leaves out Messi, and Neymar on the first matchday of the year, and promptly loses the first game of the year, the right man?