Are Barcelona and Lionel Messi going into meltdown?

By Alistair Tweedale

Lionel Messi and Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League yesterday. Photo / AP
Lionel Messi and Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League yesterday. Photo / AP

Okay, so 'meltdown' might be a little strong for last season's treble-winners and the best player on the planet, but the few weeks they have endured suggests there may well be something to worry about.

They will hope that Champions League elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid after taking a first leg lead to the Calderon will be the nadir of their season; but their form of late, which has seen their league lead cut to just three points, hints that further trouble could be afoot.

Lionel Messi is suffering one of the worst goal droughts of his glittering career. The presence of Neymar and Luis Suarez was supposed to have taken pressure away from the Argentine to the extent that it didn't matter when he was not firing. He is off form now, though, and the team is struggling terribly.

He has failed to score in five consecutive matches, last scoring against Arsenal a month ago, meaning he has gone 452 minutes without scoring a single goal.

That is his worst run since May 2011, and he will surpass that drought if he fails to net inside 23 minutes against Valencia at the weekend - something that looks a distinct possibility on recent evidence.

With 22 goals and 10 assists in 27 La Liga appearances so far this season, we can legitimately call this recent run little more than a blip for Messi, but Barcelona need him to rediscover form before long or their season could fall apart.

The suggestion that they might end the season with fewer than two trophies seemed absurd as recently as a fortnight ago. Barcelona, with a lethal front three that is in some quarters considered the best of all time, looked well-placed to become the first team to retain the Champions League. Another treble wasn't even beyond the realm of possibility.

After throwing away a two-goal lead at Villarreal in mid-March, Barcelona then lost at home after going ahead in the Clasico to ten-man Real Madrid. They beat Atletico - though they were fortunate that Luis Suarez had stayed on the pitch to score a brace - but have since lost to the same opposition and to the relatively lowly Real Sociedad.

That run has seen them fall behind four times in five games, as many times as they had in their previous 20 matches. They have also conceded as many goals in this recent poor run as they did in 13 before it.

Barcelona have scored just five goals in five games. They have scored five or more in nine different matches already this season. Clearly, something is up.

They are keeping possession in their usual dominant manner, enjoying no less than 65 per cent of the ball in any game in their recent poor run, but are patently lacking much of the creative spark, dynamism and burst of pace that made them such a threat in the final third for the majority of the season. In their last three league matches they have mustered six 'clear cut' chances. They created eight in one game prior to this run.

Barcelona had not lost a single game since early October and had won 22 of their last 24 matches before this recent run threatened to decimate their season, and while in La Liga they may be able to rely on the healthy lead they had already built up, the knockout rounds of the Champions League have not been so forgiving. Even the one-off Copa del Rey final against Sevilla at the end of the season looks a daunting proposition as things stand.

Luis Enrique's side now have seven games to save their season and worryingly, the momentum they so recently had now looks to have run out.

Retaining a trophy - let alone three - is much more difficult than winning it in the first place, so it has been a tiring and testing season for a much-scrutinised Barcelona team who everybody wants to beat.

Nonetheless, a team of their talents will be immensely disappointed if they don't end this slump quickly and will have done something even more surprising than another treble if they end up trophyless. That was unthinkable a few weeks ago, but things have taken a terrible turn in Catalonia.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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