A strange glee accompanies watching the downfall of a powerful empire, in this case, a grand footballing philosophy. The more rapid it is, the more riveting it will be. So, in the space of a few months, from once being the ideal most teams wanted to emulate, Barcelona turn into a poor man’s Stoke City with 54 crosses against Bayern Munich or are the Watford of the Spanish League with a slashed salary cap due to the full-blown financial crisis of their own making.
Even as we look away from the genesis of Barcelona’s mess, it is the resulting free-fall on the pitch that has us hooked. There’s something about a sudden hollowness of a famed concept, of it failing to provide the answers that it did all this time, that thrills us. It was in the abject ordinariness of Barcelona – rudderless and Messi-less – that elder statesmen Pique and Busquets dropped all pretence and argued mid-pitch after young, temperamental Joao Felix of Atletico and a Barca discard called Luiz Suarez so casually split them open. Three passes was all it took for their misplaced elegance to be dropped.
In what has been a strange – yet familiar – phase for Barcelona, they conceded 13 goals in nine games. There could have been more, but for goalkeeper Ter Stegen, their saving grace for three seasons now. As they struggle – only one win in six games — you would have thought that a team of this pedigree would have had a few, if not multiple layers to their playing ethos, to discard the sophisticated one for a more prosaic one as the situation begged. But perhaps, Barcelona had long discarded those very basic tenets of sporting contests.
On Saturday, Atletico versus Barcelona was a meeting between the current Nos. 4 and 8 in Spain, a top-drawer tie meeting that had slipped a few notches. If anything, the mid-table clash revealed that while the home side understand their limitations, Barcelona don’t have a Plan B. There never was a Plan B at Barca, and now Atletico are reaping the fruits of a rival’s arrogant error of judgement.
The tie contained multitudes of sub-plots, it also had spoiler alerts for the future. The Clasico in Spain appeared greatly diluted, after Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid a couple of seasons back. This year, it completely ran the risk of losing its billing as club football’s biggest game when Messi was forced to depart Spain and Real Madrid let go of Sergio Ramos. Even if Real Madrid are a pale version of their efficient self, it is Barcelona’s woeful predicament that suddenly makes the October 24th meeting hugely relevant. Luis Suarez and Atletico Madrid gave us a glimpse of what can happen. It could be worse. Or not. But it is simply impossible to look away.