Ironically enough, after writing on Friday about the great shock of Michigan blowing a one-score lead on the final play against Colorado on September 24, 1994 (and no, I did not need to look that date up), Barca almost certainly blew the chance to win a third straight Primera title on Saturday in unbelievably dramatic circumstances. Initially, I was annoyed with GolTV when they provided live look-ins to the Barca-Espanyol match during Real Madrid-Real Zaragoza because they were spoiling the results of the former match. However, as the drama unfolded, it became clear that it was impossible to watch the Real match without knowing what was going on at the Nou Camp, if for no other reason than the Madrid celebrations after pulling a 2-2 draw would have given the result away. In a way, it's just as well that Barca blew the game, as it would have been awfully difficult to defend a league title won, in part, on a goal like this:
This is what happens when you have to root for an Argentine.
I probably could have stomached justifying a Barca title, as I only would have had to hearken back to Ruud van Nistlerooy scoring a similar goal two weeks ago against Deportivo, not to mention the fact that Barca was denied an obvious penalty in injury time in the home leg against Real that would have put the Catalans three points up at present. That said, Leo Messi is going from "cherubic wondertalent" to "cheating villain" in the minds of a lot of impartial observers and that is not a good thing in the least. He represents the future of Barcelona, but he has a lot of growing up to do.
As for the game itself, it should not surprise you that I could not bear to watch the match after knowing what the result was, but the in-game highlights and the basic write-up of the match tell me everything I need to know:
1. Eidur Gudjohnsen missed a pair of good chances. Barca surrendered the Primera title for a variety of reasons and one of them was the foolish decision to think that Gudjohnsen could replace Henrik Larsson.
2. Rijkaard started without a defensive midfielder. He has made this mistake time and again this season and it's always come back to bite him. It was especially bad given the importance that Ivan de la Pena plays as an offensive midfielder for Espanyol. Barca desperately needed Marquez or Motta screening for the vulnerable back four, but they didn't get that support until there were 12 minutes remaining and even then, it was inadequate because Barca were in a defensive posture by that point and one screening midfielder was not enough. Both Espanyol goals came from passes from the middle of the park, which is exactly where Motta or Marquez would have been deployed to break up attacks. Henk Ten Cate is missed yet again.
3. Eto'o missed a great chance to put the game away, shooting right at Kameni when he should have made the game 3-1. His finishing has been poor since returning from injury, although I'm recalling that I wasn't a huge fan of his finishing last year until he equalized in the Champions League Final and then all was forgiven. Ultimately, the difference between Real and Barca is that Real has a striker who finishes consistently and Barca does not.
I expect this to change in the close season. One rumor is that Barca and Arsenal are going to swap Eto'o and Thierry Henry (along with a suitcase of cash to the Arse), which would be a good change of scenery for both players. Another is that Barca are going to buy either David Villa, whose value is sky-high right now, or Diego Milito, who has been a revelation for Zaragoza this year and who scored a terrific goal after a super run by Pablo Aimar.
Phil Ball has advanced the theory that Barca and Real move in opposite directions; when one is going up, the other is going down. I don't see this season as the harbinger for a down period for Barca and an up period for Real. For one thing, Real's resurgence this year was the result of a series of last-minute escapes that tend not to repeat themselves. For another, Real's great closing run was fueled largely by van Nistlerooy, who is on the wrong side of 30, and David Beckham, who is headed to MLS. Barca still have the younger, more talented side; Real don't have anyone the caliber of Iniesta or Messi. The flaws in Barca's side this year - an injured and then misfiring Eto'o, a lack of quality depth up front, and bad tactical decisions - are all correctable. Actually, that's not entirely true. Barca also have a star player who doesn't bother to train or stay in shape, a modern day Ronaldo. That is a problem that might not necessarily resolve itself.