And then there were two. As the season draws to a close, FC Barcelona have it all to play for in their final two matches, as 180 minutes of football look set to define their year – failure or success, hinging upon their performance in this final stretch. Across the country, Spain’s three best teams are united by this very concept. Atletico, Real and Barça: neck and neck for the entire campaign, each with two matches left to decide their fate.
Glory, pride, history; it’s all left to play for across three competitions.
Atletico Madrid may have stumbled at the penultimate hurdle on the domestic front with their defeat to Levante UD last weekend, but they have the chance to bounce back and claim the greatest prize of all: the UEFA Champions League. For Real, they could do the same – and they could still claim a 33rd La Liga title as well. Barça are in the driving seat for that particular honour though, and they have the opportunity to win a domestic double, provided they win their remaining two fixtures.
For all three teams, the prospect of triumph is so tantalisingly close and yet each of the three could still end the season in disappointment.
For Atletico and Real Madrid, either side could end the season without a title if they lose the UEFA Champions League final at the end of the month – and that may be irrespective of their results tomorrow. Elsewhere, after a record-breaking undefeated streak earlier in the campaign, FC Barcelona could end without a major honour if they fail to win their remaining two fixtures.
And in amongst all the permutations, the one constant is that one of these three team’s seasons will end in ignominious fashion – for Luis Enrique the task is simple: ensure that his Blaugrana do not succumb to that fate.
The odds are stacked in our favour. If we match Real Madrid’s result, we will walk out of Andalusia as La Liga champions for the 24th time. If we beat Sevilla CF next weekend at the Vicente Calderon, we will be crowned Copa del Rey winners for the 28th time. If we can do both, we will win the domestic double for a seventh time – only Bayern Munich has achieved this honour more times across Europe’s top five leagues.
Forget all the rest – it’s just background noise. If we do our job, we win the title and we win the cup. It’s all within our hands, we just have to deliver.
Speaking of delivering, for all the talk of maletines this week, the media appear to be missing the point; whether the payments exist or not, this is football – a competitive sport – and as such the prospect of facing a team motivated to win shouldn’t faze the Barcelona squad. If anything, the concept of these maletines, fictional or otherwise, is a damning indictment of the modern game; the game is awash with more money than it has ever seen, and yet players need a little more on top, on the side, to do their job?
Granada are not the richest club in Spain, nor do they have the richest players – but financially, they are secure. With La Liga status secured for another season, their jobs, their livelihoods – they’re not directly at stake anymore. Maletin or no maletin, I would expect them to try and end their season on a high tomorrow. With safety secured, why not try and finish with an upset over the reigning champions, especially in front of your home crowd.
Again, the imperative for Barça is clear: do your job, and the title will follow.
After granting his squad the start of the week off, it will come as no surprise to Luis Enrique that he has no new injury concerns to contend with for this final day showdown. The stakes are high, but his players are fresh, his players are motivated and perhaps most pertinently of all, his players are better than their counterparts at Granada. It’s an inescapably obvious fact, but one that I feel the need to remind everyone about. If you feel yourself getting nervous as kick-off approaches, just remember that we’re the ones with Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué.
Every single member of our squad has won a trophy in their senior career. Heck, all but one of them have won multiple trophies in their career (sorry Aleix Vidal), so they’ve all been in this situation before. They know how to handle the pressure, to deliver their best when it matters most – and that kind of experience breeds composure, and composure often wins football matches.
For it is important tomorrow that Barcelona keep their composure. If Real Madrid scores early, the pressure will be on and there’s every chance that the crowd will relay any news from the Riazor. If we have another slow first half and go into the break level, or even behind, as we have in half of our away fixtures in La Liga this season, we have to show the wherewithal to take a step back, collect ourselves and continue playing as we always have.
That’s because at some stage, we know that the "Gala XI" will pull through for us.
It’s highly probable that Luis Enrique will start tomorrow’s match with the same starting XI that defeated Juventus in the UEFA Champions League final last summer. On that night, we got off to a great start courtesy of Ivan Rakitić, and the Croatian midfielder has been in excellent form as of late with two goals in his previous four appearances. Could he be the one that delivers the La Liga title?
Maybe it will be Lionel Messi; we all know that the Argentine has a phenomenal record with this club, and that his record extends to finals and other hugely important matches. Just last season he scored the only goal away from home at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico Madrid – the goal that won us the title. Will history repeat itself a year later in Andalusia?
Or maybe it will be Luis Suarez, the greatest pure striker in world football today, and a man who is averaging over a goal a game in La Liga this season. There are so many candidates – so many players with a chance to etch their name into Barcelona’s history books. Maybe it will be their latest entry – or perhaps we will see a new hero emerge...
While a final day showdown with a team that’s mathematically assured of survival sounds easy enough, Granada actually boast one of the best records in La Liga in this final stretch of the season. With three wins and a draw in their last six matches, Granada are good for sixth place in La Liga’s current form guide and they’re unbeaten in their last six matches at home. In Youssef El-Arabi, they have a striker that’s scored 16 goals this season – that’s as many as Sevilla’s top-scorer, and reported Barça target, Kevin Gameiro.
We would be foolish to underestimate this side and the threat they pose, but we would also be naive to ignore the facts. Granada have the fourth worst defense in the league. They are also the fifth worst team in the league based on the standings headed into Jornada 38 and to top it all off, we’ve only failed to beat Granada once in our history. Hell, they’ve only beaten our B team once.
FC Barcelona 4-0 Granada CF – 9th January 2016 – La Liga
Lionel Messi bagged a hat-trick and Neymar provided the icing on the cake in what was a routine home win for the Blaugrana.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Granada (5-4-1): Fernandez; Lopes, Lomban, Babin, Costa, Biraghi; Rico, Perez, Krhin, Rochina; El-Arabi
Messi will strike early, Suarez will wrap it up. 4-1 Barça.