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An expensive mistake? No place for Griezmann as Barcelona title hopes fade

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Madrid (AFP)

Barcelona's hopes of retaining the Spanish title look to be slipping away after Tuesday's 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid, and the decision to leave Antoine Griezmann on the bench for almost the whole game appeared to sum up the malaise which has taken hold in the Catalan capital.

Twice Barcelona led against Atletico at the Camp Nou only to be pegged back and forced to settle for a third draw in their last four La Liga outings which leaves them a point behind leaders Real Madrid having played a game more.

The scenario was a repeat of last weekend, when Quique Setien's team were ahead twice away at Celta Vigo only to draw 2-2. Real can now go four points clear by beating Getafe on Thursday, while also boasting the head-to-head advantage over their title rivals.

And yet while Barca desperately needed three points against Atletico, Setien saw no reason to send on Griezmann until the 90th minute.

The French World Cup winner was also only brought on as a late substitute against Celta, but Tuesday amounted to a humiliation for Griezmann against his former club, who sold him for 120 million euros ($135 million) last summer.

Sergi Roberto and 17-year-old Ansu Fati had already come on before Setien turned to Griezmann as a last-minute replacement for Arturo Vidal.

When asked about the bit-part role to which his former player was restricted, Atletico coach Diego Simeone's reply was as cutting as it was short. "Speechless", said the Argentine.

"It is true that it is hard bringing him on like that, for a player of his level. But the circumstances forced me to do it," said Setien.

"I could have taken a different decision, not brought him on for example, but you always have the hope that a player like him can win you the game."

Setien added that he would not be apologising to the 29-year-old and claimed the player would understand why he was left out.

- Time running out -

Nevertheless, Setien's handling of Griezmann can only increase the pressure on the coach, who has not won over those who doubted his ability to succeed at the Camp Nou after he was appointed in January.

Having excelled under Simeone at Atletico, Griezmann always appeared an unnatural fit for Barcelona, wedded to their 4-3-3 formation or variations thereof. The Frenchman looks even more out of place with Luis Suarez back fit to team up with Lionel Messi in attack.

Messi scored his 700th career goal on Tuesday. Griezmann, meanwhile, has just eight goals in La Liga this season, his lowest return since netting seven for Real Sociedad in 2011/12.

He has scored just one league goal in 2020, not enough when you are one of the most expensive footballers of all time.

More importantly for Setien, a third straight title looks beyond Barcelona.

When appointed in January, the 61-year-old ex-Betis coach admitted he could not promise to make his team win. "But I promise that my team will play well," he said.

They are not even doing that, and it is impossible to watch this Barca side and not long for the glorious football played by Pep Guardiola's team almost a decade ago now, or even Frank Rijkaard's dazzling side of several years before that, when Messi was just emerging.

"I am used to finding myself in difficult situations. I might not be as happy as I was at the beginning, but inside I am doing fine," Setien said, while insisting that the dressing room was behind him.

Time is running out already for Setien, not least because time is running out for Messi to win trophies with Barca.

The Argentine, who has 22 La Liga goals this season, has just turned 33. Missing out on what would be an 11th La Liga crown in 16 years would be one thing, but the pressure is building towards the latter stages of the Champions League, due to be played in August.

Messi and Barca have not won that trophy since 2015. They still need to get through a last-16 second leg against Napoli in order to qualify for the final eight in Lisbon.

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