The Anoeta curse continues. Barcelona had failed to win any of their previous five fixtures away to Real Sociedad in La Liga and suffered another defeat on Saturday night in a tired performance by the team and, alarmingly, Lionel Messi as the season finale approaches.
Messi has looked weary since returning from the recent international break and was guilty of drifting inside for much of the night. His impact was needed out on the wing, but he appeared physically unable to provide the spark that his team-mates sought in the absence of the suspended Luis Suarez. And over on the other side, Neymar was equally disappointing.
As against Atlético Madrid last week, the team lacked creativity in the final third and were happy to pass the ball around. At the San Sebastian, even after being 1-0 down, there was a lack of urgency on the part of the Blaugrana and it could prove very costly if things don't improve quickly.
In this fixture last season, Luis Enrique left Messi on the bench after a heated argument in training in the build-up to the game. There was no such animosity this time around, but the result was identical: An early goal for the Basques and a disappointing 1-0 win against a rival which the Blaugranas should have defeated with relative ease.
The trip to Anoeta always seems to arrive at a tough time for Barca. However, the Catalans' recent record in San Sebastian is surprising. No other team can boast four straight wins over the Blaugrana at home, nor six successive seasons without losing like La Real have managed. La Real always seem to up their game against this particular opponent and their ferocious crowd support don't seem to help the Barça cause either.
Barcelona were expected to bounce back from their derby defeat to Real Madrid, as well as an underwhelming draw with Villarreal, with a victory against mid-table Real Sociedad. But things didn’t quite go according to plan.
The unfancied home team raced into an early lead through winger Mikel Oyarzabal’s header, and they defended manfully throughout, to secure all three points. It is the first time since May 2014 that Barça have failed to win three straight La Liga matches.
The Blaugranas' league form is of the most concern. Fortunately for Luis Enrique and co, the club's next match is at home to Valencia which is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the easiest fixtures La Liga has to offer. Valencia have lost their last four matches, and shouldn’t trouble Barcelona, who will welcome back Suarez after his suspension for picking up five yellow cards.
That would then leave Barcelona with five games left to play, and their run-in is, in theory, a kind one. None of their matches will be against teams in the top ten, and although Sporting de Gijón – scrapping for their top-flight survival – could be identified as a potential banana skin, Barca will play them at home.
The Catalans' poor form has certainly made La Liga interesting again, but last season's winners remain heavy favourites. Atletico and Real Madrid have tougher fixtures to handle and both are struggling in the offensive and defensive aspects of their game respectively. It wouldn't be a surprise if they dropped a few points before the end of the season.
"There is no margin for error," Luis Enrique said. "We haven't been at our best level these past few weeks. But we have to pick ourselves up for the Champions League and the game against Valencia at Camp Nou."
Barcelona now make the short trip to the Vicente Calderón Stadium, where they will play Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. The tie hangs in the balance and, although the Catalans will take a valuable 2-1 lead into the match, Atletico boast a precious away goal which could prove crucial.
The team will need everyone to up their ante and give their very best to defeat Los Che at the Calderón. This may be a turning point in the season and anything other than a victory would lower the morale of the team. Time for the lads to pull up their socks and remain focused on the tasks at hand without hesitation or unnecessary distractions.
Barça's title hopes rest in their own hands. Unlike last season, where the team depended a lot on the opposition dropping a few points, we are in much stronger position now. Messi and co. must show the same hunger and determination to repeat the heroics of last year and prove who the best team in the world are: The Catalan Giants!