A lot can change in 153 days. In fact, a lot can change in three days, as Ernesto Valverde regularly points out when encouraged to get carried away by Barcelona’s brilliant season so far. But despite being nine points clear at the top of the league, 19 ahead of Real Madrid (who are fourth) and safely through to the Champions League knockout stages, Valverde refuses to get giddy. Instead, he prefers to centre in on football’s more capricious qualities.
And there’s nowhere where those qualities can be more evident than at Barca.
“If we were 19 points behind Madrid, the press would have killed us,” Jordi Alba said last weekend, suggesting even Zinedine Zidane’s side get an easy ride in comparison to the Catalans.
Defeats at Barca can be met with obituaries, as was the case when Valverde’s side were manhandled by Madrid in August. Beaten 3-1 and 2-0 by Los Blancos in the Spanish Super Cup, even the players struggled to put on a brave face.
“We’re not having our best time as a team or a club,” Gerard Pique said after the second leg loss at the Bernabeu. “In the nine years I’ve been [at Barca], it’s the first time I feel inferior to Madrid.”
Pique was saying what everyone else was thinking. Not only had they been thoroughly outplayed by Madrid, who were fresh from winning La Liga and the Champions League, but they had just lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain for €222 million. Several players have since admitted the Brazilian’s departure did knock the dressing room.
But as Valverde stresses, football changes from one game to the next, so imagine how much can change in 153 days. That’s the time which elapsed between that defeat to Madrid in August and Wednesday’s Copa del Rey loss to rivals Espanyol at Cornella-El Prat, which ended Barca’s 29-game unbeaten streak.
In the meantime, Barca have beaten Juventus 3-0, won 3-0 away at Madrid, come from 2-0 down against Real Sociedad to end “The Curse of Anoeta“, built up a commanding lead at the top of La Liga and progressed in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. This time, then, a defeat is not followed by an obituary for once.
After the 1-0 loss at Espanyol, Pique even said: “If you could choose a day to lose, it might have been today,” because it will all count for nothing, apart from the end of a long unbeaten run, if Barca can turn things around in the second leg next week.
Teammate Sergio Busquets agreed, saying that he doesn’t think losing the game “is going to affect the team.”
Casting aside the pain of a first defeat to their city rivals since 2009 and their first ever reverse at Cornella-El Prat, Pique has a point. While not wanting to lose their unbeaten run — which falls short of the 39-game record set by Luis Enrique’s side two years ago — Valverde’s calmness has transferred to his players and allowed them to apply common sense to the situation.
The loss came, after all, in a game which may not actually matter in the grander scheme of things. Barca lost, but they lost without a number of injured players (Samuel Umtiti, Javier Mascherano, Andres Iniesta, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Paco Alcacer were all missing) and with Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Alba left on the bench. Barca lost, but they can still win the tie next week at Camp Nou.
There was an element of relief, even, to Pique’s comments. The longer the unbeaten streak went on, the more it was talked about and the more records appeared on the horizon. You become a target. Everyone wants to be the team to end that long run. That target remains in La Liga, but the bigger one has dropped.
In August, Barca had become a symbol of the club’s problems. Now, they’re becoming a symbol of their coach. Time will provide the real answers, but a Catalan derby defeat doesn’t look set to derail their season.
But then again, that Clasico mauling was not an obvious precursor to what followed over the next 153 days.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.