In recent years, FC Barcelona has repeatedly been dubbed as the greatest soccer club of all-time. They have enjoyed an abundance of success since 2004, but more notably in the last 4 years.
During this time, they went on one of the greatest runs in history, winning 3 league titles, 2 Champions League titles, 2 Copa Del Rey (King's Cup) titles, 3 Spanish Super Cup titles, a UEFA Super Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup title.
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FCB is currently 22-2-2, and barring an unlikely catastrophic implosion, are in line to win their 22nd La Liga title. They have a comfortable 11-point cushion over second-place Atlético Madrid with only 12 matches to go.
Still, Barça fans are in unfamiliar territory where they have officially entered panic mode.
This might sound ridiculous, considering their team is easily running away with the league championship, but their reign as the #1 soccer club in the world is slowly beginning to evaporate before their eyes.
You see, FCB has lost 3 of its last 4 overall games.
The slump began on February 20th with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Italian powerhouse A.C. Milan in their 1st leg of the Champions League Round of 16. Less than a week later, they were embarrassed with a 3-1 loss at home to Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey semi-finals, which eliminated them from the Spanish tournament. And to make matters worse, Barça fell 2-1 to their hated rivals only 4 days later in league play.
The primary reason for the recent decline is not entirely the play of the team, but rather the quality of coaching, or lack thereof.
During the club's unprecedented run from 2008-2012, former manager Josep "Pep" Guardiola was at the helm. But at the end of last year, he decided not to renew his contract. That paved the way for his longtime assistant, Tito Vilanova, to fill the position.
Barça came out of the gates firing on all cylinders in Tito's first season as manager, setting a La Liga record by earning 55 out of a possible 57 points. They won 18 of the first 19 games of the season, and were on pace to obliterate Real Madrid's record of 100 points in a season, which was set last year.
But tragedy struck in mid-December when Tito was re-diagnosed with cancer in his parotid salivary gland. He underwent successful surgery and returned to the sidelines, but has been away from the team since late-January. He has been receiving treatment in New York and won't return to the club until at least April.
It is easy to pinpoint the squad's struggles of late, because since Tito's departure from the sidelines, FCB has gone 5-2-3 overall.
While interim manager Jordi Roura has somewhat kept the team afloat in league play, he is clearly not cut out to manage them in big-game situations. He has not been able to develop a well enough gameplan and the ability to adapt mid-game against the best of the best. The two top-flight clubs they've lost to, Real Madrid and A.C. Milan, are led by elite managers Jose Mourinho and Massimiliano Allegri, respectively. Both have out-coached Roura with relative ease in the last couple weeks.
However, even when Tito returns to the team and restores equilibrium, I don't see Barça being as dominant as they have been.
The reliance on Lionel Messi has grown more and more each year and has become a downtrend for the club. Of course, having the best player on the planet on your squad is always nice, but putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good philosophy either.
FCB is lacking another striker to finish plays. As of today, Messi has scored 39 goals in league play, while the rest of the team has combined for 43. No other player has more than 7 goals scored.
When facing other elite teams, such as Real Madrid, it's become difficult for Messi to carry the team on his own for the simple fact that big-time coaches have developed strategies to help contain the three-time defending FIFA Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) winner, and force the rest of the team to try and beat them.
This will not change until Barça gets another striker to help Messi out, or at least until they begin to play David Villa in his normal position. Villa has been on and off the field sporadically over the last couple seasons due to injury. But when he has seen the pitch, FCB has utilized him in more of a winger position instead of his usual center-forward spot. They need to get back to that old style which allows Villa to help create space for both him and Messi.
Another reason why FCB might be on a downward spiral is their defense.
I think it's time for the team to begin to bolster that part of the roster. Out of the 30 goals scored against them this season, 24 of those have come from inside the box. That means that opposing players have been able to infiltrate the defense and get close range shots.
Carles Puyol, their captain and defensive anchor, is getting up there in age and has also been injury-ridden over the last few years. It's time the club finds his successor because I'm not sure how much more game he has left in the tank.
The rest of their defensive unit is not exactly premier either. Dani Alves has always been more offensive-minded, Eric Abidal has missed a lot of time, and Girard Pique also has offensive aspirations and isn't exactly the greatest defender around.
Maybe it's too early to say the dynasty is over. Maybe it's not. After all, Barça's hiccups have always come in late-February to early-March, for some odd reason. The problem is the future isn't looking too bright, beyond just this slump.
I can already see the FC Barcelona bandwagon start to break down and these fair weather fans getting ready to hop off and jump ship onto the first one they see.