Is it time for Barcelona to concede La Liga?
Madrid's week 28 draw with Malaga, combined with Barcelona's win at Sevilla, narrowed the gap between the Spanish giants to eight points with 33 still up for grabs. And yet, even after Malaga breathed a whisper of life into La Liga's one-sided race, Pep Guardiola insists that a fourth straight domestic title is a lost cause for Barça. Never mind that Barcelona is playing arguably its best soccer of the season and that Real Madrid has squeaked by -- at times with the luck of a champion -- against minnows like Betis and Rayo Vallecano. Never mind that eight points is far from an insurmountable lead and that Valencia erased a similar deficit in a similar time frame to snatch the title from Madrid in 2004.
The most optimistic cules will hold out hope until the laws of arithmetic contradict them. But, even though Barça remains mathematically in the hunt, Guardiola is right to concede that La Liga is likely lost. A short squad, a condensed schedule and virtually no room for error are major obstacles to overcome for a team with its eyes on the bigger, and perhaps more attainable prize -- a fifth European trophy. Stubbornly chasing only the second treble in the history of Spanish soccer could prove detrimental to that goal.
So, is it time for Barcelona to concede La Liga? Not yet, but soon. The mid-week domestic and European fixtures will force Guardiola into some difficult decisions in the coming weeks. Considering the long-term losses of David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and now Eric Abidal, plus niggling injuries that have affected key starters like Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol and Alexis Sanchez, rotations will be necessary to deal with the physical demands of playing every three to four days.
The schedule will be brutal around European matches. Barcelona’s quarterfinal series against AC Milan is preceded by a trip to Mallorca and flanked around a visit from Copa del Rey finalist and Manchester United killer, Athletic Bilbao. That leaves four days between Mallorca and Milan, three days between Milan and Athletic, and three days between Athletic and the return leg with the Rossoneri.
Should Barcelona eliminate the Italian champion to reach the CL semifinals, Guardiola will again deal with a rotation headache. Barça would travel to Levante, play the first leg against Chelsea or Benfica on the road, return home to face Real Madrid, and host the second leg of the CL semis, all on short rest.
It may be honorable to fight to the last breath on every front, but it may not be prudent. It’s far more likely that Guardiola’s pessimistic stance on Barça’s domestic hopes foreshadows the need to give youngsters Martin Montoya, Thiago Alcantara, Jonathan Dos Santos, Isaac Cuenca and Christian Tello significant playing time during the most crucial games left on the schedule. Erasing an eight point deficit against this Real Madrid team with anything less than Barcelona’s best eleven may be asking too much, even for a Barça team that has already proven to be among the best of all time.
Andres Cordero / Twitter @drecordero