Philadelphia, PA – Real Sociedad did the entire world a massive favor last weekend.
La Real looked dead and buried with a two-goal deficit against Barcelona at the Anoeta, but a timely strike from Gonzalo Castro prior to the halftime interval brought Sociedad to within one before Gerard Pique foolishly got himself sent off with more than 30 minutes to play.
Javier Mascherano promptly came on to solidify the Barcelona defense, but he made an adverse impact on the match when he deflected Castro's 62nd-minute shot into his own net to bring the two sides level. The home side looked the more likely to go on and grab a winner, which it did on the stroke of full time when Imanol Agirretxe guided a low cross past Victor Valdes with a one-time finish.
Big deal. It's just one match out of the 38 league contests that every La Liga club will play - it cannot possibly make that big of an impact on the outcome of the season, right?
This was Barcelona's first loss of the La Liga campaign and third loss under manager Tito Vilanova across all competitions. The Catalans came into the match with a 19-game unbeaten run in league play, dropping just two points all season.
Second-place Atletico Madrid picked up maximum points in the weekend, cutting Barcelona's lead at the top of the table to eight points with 18 league games to go, hardly an insurmountable separation for Diego Simeone's men.
With the manner in which Barcelona has competed in (read, dominated) La Liga this season, there was something amiss. One of the world's greatest leagues looked set to fizzle out in anticlimactic fashion, without any real drama that we've come to expect. Thanks to Real Sociedad's sensational defeat of the mighty Catalans, the title chase is back on in Spain's top flight, for all intents and purposes.
But it probably won't be for long.
Barcelona, which has its sights set on a potential Treble, has a massive opportunity to put the rest of the league to bed and turn its focus to the latter stages of the Champions League during the spring months.
The Catalans are on pace to claim an astounding 110 points in league play this term. While it's unrealistic to think that Vilanova's men will match the 2.75 points per match they achieved in the first half of the season, it certainly does not mean that they are not capable of doing so. Whatever Barcelona does, Atletico needs to match it to simply get within touching distance.
There is no doubt the fixture list foreshadows a strong run in Barcelona's favor. The Catalans will host Levante on April 21, but eight of their 11 matches preceding that tilt will come against teams currently in the bottom half of the table. They will face Atletico, third-place Real Betis and fifth-place Malaga after that stretch, but the league title could be wrapped up by that point, making those results a moot point.
Barcelona is at a pivotal point in the season, coming off a rare loss. How the club responds will be a determinant of how the remainder of the season unfolds. It starts with the second leg of Barca's Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Malaga (2-2 on aggregate) on Thursday and will continue in league play when it hosts lowly Osasuna at Camp Nou on Sunday.
"When you have a bad result, you need to analyze it," Barca assistant coach Jordi Roura said in reference to the club's last two outings. "The team played well in the two games (Malaga and Real Sociedad) where we tied and lost. We didn't kill off the games at home and away at Anoeta and both matches became complicated after that. We have to analyze how the matches played out because our attitude was correct."
Given the talent gap separating Barcelona from the rest of Spanish football at the moment, that analysis seems to be the only thing holding the Catalans back from clinching the league title in comfortable fashion and turning their attentions elsewhere.