The fact that beating Real Sociedad feels like an accomplishment says everything about Barcelona right now

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·5 min read

The league leaders in Spain’s La Liga lost to the eighth-place team on Wednesday and, naturally, it felt like something of an upset.

After all, the leaders had lost just once all season and not since September. And they pressed the issue in the second half, threatening the home team’s goal with an equalizer again and again. But the underdogs, who had won just three of their last 11 league matches, at one point sinking as deep as 13th place, managed to hang on.

Barcelona vanquished Real Sociedad 2-1, thanks to goals from Jordi Alba and Frenkie de Jong. That made this the first time Barca won back-to-back La Liga games since the first two of the campaign, following up Sunday’s 1-0 squeaker over Levante.

The victory lifted Barca to fifth place, for now. Sociedad remained in first, but Atletico and Real Madrid have the same number of points and have each played fewer games.

Still, it won’t soon be forgotten that before this rare winning streak, Barca was hammered 3-0 at home by Juventus in the Champions League – albeit with passage to the Round of 16 already secured – on the back of a disheveling 2-1 loss to little Cadiz. The latter was yet another game marred by unimaginable defensive blunders by the onetime model club.

Before the showdown with Sociedad, first-year Barca manager Ronald Koeman, who has overseen the acceleration of a startling decline that long predates him, had sounded a warning. “The pressure here is huge, everyone demands that you must win every game," the peripatetic Dutch manager had told the uncompromising Catalan soccer press. “But the club’s situation is different right now and you have to accept that we can’t win all the time.”

Barcelona has spent much of the last decade in the first-place perch Real Sociedad currently occupies in La Liga. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
Barcelona has spent much of the last decade in the first-place perch Real Sociedad currently occupies in La Liga. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

This was a stunning admission for a Barca manager. Yet it wasn’t wrong. Because the chaos at the club is all-encompassing. Barca’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu was forced to resign on account of the decay to head off a vote of no confidence from the members. The club is broke – deeply in debt, in fact. Superstar Lionel Messi wanted to leave last summer and nearly forced through a move to Manchester City on account of an out-clause in his $120 million-a-year contract, which expires next summer anyway.

The interim president has said the club should have sold Messi when it had the chance to cash in. At least one presidential candidate thinks Barca, creaking under the weight of the biggest payroll in all of sports, can’t afford to keep Messi past this season even if he wants to stay. Oh, and Messi will turn 34 in the summer and is now quite clearly past his unparalleled prime.

Paris Saint-Germain might attempt to poach Messi to reunite him with former Barca teammate Neymar if Kylian Mbappe leaves for Real Madrid. That would present something of a nightmare scenario for Barca, losing Messi while their arch rivals picked up perhaps the world’s best young striker.

So yes, to that backdrop, Barca beating a composed and balanced Sociedad, a team espousing all the virtues that Barca no longer does, is a good result.

Still, La Real took the lead through Willian Jose in the 27th minute on a dandy bit or preparatory work from Portu. Alba equalized after half an hour with a splendid finish from his off-leg.

And before half-time, Alba found a wide-open de Jong for the tap-in.

The afflicted Antoine Griezmann, who came up through Sociedad’s academy but now represents everything wrong with this expensive and out-of-form and feckless Barca, somehow slid a tap-in right into the hands of vanquished goalkeeper Alex Remiro. But after that, Sociedad ventured closer to an equalizer than Barca came to putting the game away.

This is the uncomfortable truth for Barca. It is caught in a place where its crisis feels intractable. The pandemic has hit the club hard financially and there is no money to throw at its problems anymore. Even after the summer clear-out of a slew of expensive veterans, drawing Messi’s ire, the club’s inflated wage bill makes it hard to conduct substantial transfers. Somehow, one of the world’s most laureled clubs, a model for so many others for the better part of two decades, has few assets.

It comes down to Messi, whose value is diminished by the day with an expiring contract, waning interest and a fast-eroding dominance.

There is no obvious way out of this mess. And therefore beating Real Sociedad, once a routine affair, feels like a real accomplishment now.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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