End of an Era or Bump in the Road?
With the mesmerizing footage of Real Madrid's bus ride past the Cibeles Fountain, there is the trepidation of a disaster waiting to happen. Of course, any time a trophy and Sergio Ramos are in the same vicinity, that's a definite possibility.
However, I speak of the future of La Liga, and especially for the defeated champions, Barcelona. What happens now? Barcelona was strengthened by Real Madrid's unending challenge, but now that the merengues have claimed the crown can the blaugrana do the same, or has their magical system been exposed for all to see.
It's too simplistic to say that Barcelona's run is over, that the era has ended. After all, if they hold off Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey it will be an unheard of haul of 14 titles in 19 championships they have contested.
While the success and the pressure to maintain the miraculous heights obviously had a toll on both Barcelona and its manager Pep Guardiola, the first cracks appeared against La Liga's lesser lights. A 2-2 draw in the season's second match at Real Sociedad could be forgiven as it was early in the season. However, warning signs should have been noted that Barça blew a 2-goal halftime lead.
A second half comeback two games later at Valencia resulted in a similar draw - and hinted that the champions were not as fearful away from the Camp Nou. Surrendering points to traditional powers Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao is not unheard of, though the home draw against Sevilla was the first time this season that Barcelona lost points at home and the result dropped them out of first place to the second spot they would hold the rest of the season.
Another road stumble resulted in their first league loss at Getafe. More road woes resulted in more dropped points at Espanyol and Villarreal in quick succession. Another defeat in the next road match after el Madrigal at Osasuna seemed to signal an end to their reign as the best in the world - but they regrouped and won eleven straight league games to set up the Clasico clash that could have seen them retain their throne.
However, Real - just like Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals - had seen how these also-rans had frustrated the mighty Messi and company. However, Chelsea and especially Real had more than just a committed defense to build a Maginot Line in front of the Barça target. While Mourinho's old team was selective in the counter, his current one was absolutely fearless.
In earlier stumbles it always seemed like the clock beat Barcelona more than the opposition. If there was just more time the tiki-taka would start to click like clockwork and Barça would have won. Even against Chelsea, the Blues were the benefactors of staunch posts and missed pens. Against Real, all but the most diehard culé would admit that Real was the better team no matter how long they played.
While the body is still warm, in fact with hardware still to be won, it might be considered too early for a post-mortem. However that has not stopped the torrent of critiques, including some proclamations that this golden era is over.
Many critics scream that Barça is in desperate need of a Plan B, an alternate mode of attack when Messi, Xavi and company run into the brick walls constructed just outside the penalty area. However, one could argue that without injury to David Villa and the illness of Eric Abidal this would have been a continuation of the dynasty. Those absences showed cracks in the clay though, and now that Tito Vilanova is the new sculptor in charge of Barcelona's renovation there are even more question to be answered as to what happens next.
Guardiola cautions that his long time confidant is his own man and will be making changes. What will they be? A new center back is needed as Carles Puyol is not getting any younger and Abidal and Pique have both been unavailable too many times this season to assume their contribution next year.
While Busquets was obviously a Guardiola favorite, will Vilanova want a more firepower and muscle from that pivotal position? With Xavi turning 33 in the middle of the season, more will be asked of, and needed from Thiago, Cesc and Iniesta on the offensive side. And while he might seem unbreakable, Messi has played in 250 matches over the last four years for club and country. Sooner or later everything breaks and Barcelona needs to be prepared for the worst, while it hopes for the best.
Up front, Ibrahimovic didn't work, but that was more a clash of personalities than a lack of talent. Villa and Alexis Sánchez both showed flashes, but neither is the hulking giant that many critics say is missing for the times Barcelona needs to leave the scenic route for route one.
However, it's doubtful Barcelona will spend the millions needed to pry away a Llorente or Negredo just to play them the few minutes each season when Plan A runs into trouble. And while Vilanova will put his mark on the side, is there any doubt it will look much the same as the current makeup, considering how much Tito helped build this goliath?
Now that they have proven to be vulnerable, will Barcelona be capable of reclaiming their invincibility, or will they end up as the whetstone that sharpens Madrid's success? For the first time in years Barcelona fans have more questions than trophies heading into the off-season and those questions won’t be answered until next season.
Is Barcelona's run over, or are they ready to challenge again? Share your thoughts below, or tweet me @PhilSchoen.