Bale’s wonder strike capped a miserable season for the Blaugrana

Marc Bartra heading an equalizer and Neymar hitting the post in the final of the Copa del Rey encapsulated Barcelona’s hit and miss season, while Real Madrid march on.

Barça might be third in La Liga but more worryingly failed to make the last four of the 2014 Champions League. Meanwhile, memories of being thrashed 7-0 on aggregate last season by the young pretender Bayern Munich are still raw. Times are tough down the Camp Nou.

The most recent clasico saw a crazy league clash at the Bernabeu end 4-3 to the Catalans, so in last night’s Spanish Cup final in Valencia, both sides began more defensively.

The blaugrana entered the changing rooms at half-time a goal down to their arch rivals, yet made an energetic fight-back and deserved to draw level. Barça then had the upper hand for a while at 1-1 before some Gareth Bale magic and a Neymar miss settled the tie.

This was more fading Catalan grandeur under the microscope. The mesmerising tiki-taka through the middle had largely gone, replaced by a few short exchanges before the ball  situs domino online was spread to the flanks for a lob into the box from Andres Iniesta or Daniel Alves, neither of whom are natural wingers.

Iniesta, Xavi and especially Lionel Messi were often invisible and many a cross found a white shirt. It was as if they were mourning former totem Pep Guardiola so much they had tried to ape Bayern’s style, yet without the requisite type of player.

 

Alves wasted many touches and looked angry and frustrated. Messi saw one shot saved but dropped deep and influenced little. Neymar was elusive for both Real’s defence and his attacking teammates.

Fabregas pulled a few useful strings in midfield but the ensemble did not convince in any meaningful way. The ferocious pressing of a few years back was nowhere to be seen. This was a Barça, if not firing blanks, then revolving at 33rpm instead of 45.

Real employed their familiar anti-Barça plan of counter-attacking at speed, with flat blanks of four behind them. Cristiano Ronaldo was out injured yet Angel Di Maria and Bale had plenty of velocity to make up for him and both scored. Indeed, it has been said that Bale plays better when Ronaldo is not there stealing his space, while similar things are whispered about Messi and Neymar.

Di Maria was particularly dangerous in the first half while Bale, far from energetic throughout, bided his time until a golden chance sprung up twenty minutes from the end and he was able to switch on his deadly afterburners.The Welshman’s 50-yard run and strike was a wonder goal, but Barcelona had left their back door open for him to steal in.

They had a total of six in the opposition box when Daniel Carvajal headed Messi’s cross out to begin the move. Barcelona were not alive to the risk of a swift counter so when Fabio Coentrao played the ball quickly upfield, Bale had already ghosted clear of Sergio Busquets, who jogged back exhausted and unable to give chase.

 

The fleet-footed Cardiffian had spied yards of open grass ahead and as the ball was played to him close to the halfway line, a scoring chance was already on the cards. Bartra’s attempted obstruction was no obstacle as the Welshman just sprinted around him, invading Barça’s technical area momentarily before bearing down remorselessly on goal. Kick and rush still works.

Barcelona are four points off the top with five games to go, third behind two teams who unlike them are still in the Champions League. Having lost the Copa del Rey, it looks like a trophy-less season for the team dubbed the best of all time when they won the last of their European Cups, three years ago in London.

 

So what has gone awry?

For a start there is the age question. Is the backbone of the side getting long in the tooth? And if so why was young starlet Thiago sold to Bayern and two promising youngsters loaned out – Gerard Deulofeu to Everton and Bojan Krkic to Ajax? At 36, Carles Puyol is in his final season, Xavi is 34, Alves 30 and Iniesta and Mascherano 29. Yet Pique is 27, Fabregas, Messi  and Pedro 26 and Busquets 25, while Neymar is only 22.

Neymar’s nine goals in 25 outings is a moderate return so far on his £46.8 million transfer, but time is on his side and his stock should surely rise after this summer’s World Cup Finals.

The Brazilian of course was at the heart of a transfer scandal involving tax evasion which ended up with Barcelona’s President Sandro Rosell resigning over tax evasion in February. Further investigations into the club’s recruitment of under-18 boys ended with FIFA banning the club from buying any players until the summer of 2015.