No team has retained the European Cup since 1990 but no reigning champion has had a better chance than Barcelona. They are the best team in the world, powered by the three best forwards, and have played some football this season unlike anything ever seen before.
Everything is in place, then, for Barcelona to do what they could not in 2010 or 2012, and win the Champions League for a second year in a row. And yet on Saturday evening, in El Clasico at home against Real Madrid, they looked sluggish, slow and vulnerable, and were well beaten 2-1.
Just three days on from that, they host Atletico Madrid on Tuesday evening in their quarter-final first leg. The question for that game, and for the rest of the season, is whether Saturday night was a blip or an omen for Luis Enrique’s side. "This game is forgotten already," the Barcelona coach said on Saturday night, hoping to move on as quickly as possible.
Of course, the defeat to Real Madrid stands out so much because it was so unexpected. It ended a 39-game all-competition unbeaten run stretching all the way back to a 2-1 loss at Sevilla six months before. No team is perfect and Barcelona were up against a highly motivated and talented opposition desperate to make up for the last few years of humiliations.
And yet there was enough in the Barcelona performance to prompt real worries, the first in some time, about whether they can repeat in 2016 what they did in 2015. They played with an unfortunate combination of tiredness and complacency, a problem that often afflicts teams who have won too much. Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, their brilliant front line, all looked tired from their long trips back to South America to play international football.
Barcelona must know that if they play like that on Tuesday their procession to the Milan final will be stopped. Atletico Madrid are the great disrupters of European football, a team who can take the opposition where they do not want to go. Their record against Barcelona, it must be said, is worse than most. They have taken just two points from their last 12 La Liga games against them.
But these two sides met at this stage of this competition two years ago. Barcelona could only manage a 1-1 draw at home and, when they lost 1-0 at the Vicente Calderon in the second leg, they were eliminated. Atletico were the best team in Europe that year, they won La Liga, only to be turned over in extra-time of the Champions League final by Real Madrid. Being the best, then, is no guarantee of being on top at the very end. Last year Barcelona were both, but this year they will need to sharpen up again to hold onto their crown.
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