Barcelona: Barcelona had once again played great, led through goals by Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, yet still managed to let it slip away.
Barcelona squandered one of its best performances of the season by conceding two late goals to Atlético Madrid, falling 3-2 in the semifinals of the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.
Messi and Griezmann had put Barcelona deservedly ahead 2-1 on Thursday. But the goalkeeping of Jan Oblak, Atletico's star this season, kept Barcelona out for the rest of the way until Alvaro Morata leveled with a penalty kick in the 82nd minute and Angel Correa completed the dramatic turnaround in the 86th.
For Barcelona, the chance to add a minor trophy from a mini-tournament played thousands of miles away is not the main worry. The concern is Barcelona's odd knack of losing control of games that look like a sure victory. Whether it's a question of overconfidence, a lack of fitness or just momentary lapses that cost the team dearly, the pressure is on coach Ernesto Valverde.
Messi and other team leaders defended Valverde, whose very good overall record at Barcelona has been blemished by shocking defeats.
"It's normal that when you lose and don't reach your objectives, and when our fans see that the team is not playing like they would like, that people talk and say things," Messi said. "We have to be more united than ever, remain a strong group and get through this.
"This year we will try to play like we did today (before the late goals) and not commit childish errors like those we committed."
But that didn't stop the Spanish sports media reporting on Friday that Barcelona club officials met with midfield great Xavi Hernandez in Doha, Qatar, to probe him as a possible replacement for Valverde either now or next season.
The club confirmed to The Associated Press that its representatives met with Xavi, but said the meeting had already been arranged before the loss to Atletico. It would not elaborate on the nature of the meeting.
Xavi left Barcelona in 2015, following 17 trophy-laden seasons, for Qatari club Al-Sadd, where he coaches. The speculation that he could soon be returning home led to Al-Sadd saying no move was imminent.
"The issue of Xavi going to Barcelona is normal and expected because he will be at his club and it's his first home and he must return there in the future, but as of today, Xavi is the coach of Al-Sadd." Al-Sadd general manager Turki Al-Ali said in a statement on the club website.
"Xavi and his team are focusing on tomorrow's match against Al-Rayyan, and we know that a club with the size and professionalism of Barcelona will take to official channels to speak of such matters," Al-Ali said.
Barcelona's loss at the King Abdullah Sports City on Thursday came five days after it conceded an 88th-minute equaliser at Espanyol in the Spanish league. The late goal by Wu Lei also came on a desperate counterattack similar to both of Atletico's late attacks that led to goals, when Barcelona's backline was out of sync and let a pass through to a player with only goalkeeper Neto to beat. Wu's goal ruined a superb match by Luis Suarez, who had scored with a fine touch and made a difficult pass for an assist.
Suarez also backed Valverde on Thursday by taking the blame for the stumble against Atletico.
"This loss shows we have room to improve," the Uruguay striker said. "It shows us that there are mistakes that we can't make because we were in charge of the game and we let them mount counterattacks … but the coach is not at fault. They were mistakes that we made."
Barcelona has drawn three of its last four league matches, but still lead the competition on goal difference ahead of Real Madrid. The team was leading before finishing 2-2 at Real Sociedad last month; lost 3-1 at Levante after Messi had put them ahead in November, and gave up a goal in the 81st in a 2-2 draw at Osasuna in August.
Those setbacks would not be as worrisome for Barcelona if the team had not completely collapsed in the Champions League in recent seasons, most recently a humiliating 4-0 loss at Liverpool after winning the first leg of the semifinals 3-0. Valverde's job was then in even more jeopardy at the end of last season after Barcelona lost the Copa del Rey final to Valencia, casting a shadow of doubt over the Spanish league champions. Club president Josep Bartomeu, however, has stuck by the former player who is known for his intelligence and unflappable attitude.
Valverde is in his third season at Barcelona. He has won back-to-back Spanish league titles and one Copa del Rey final. A European Cup has eluded him.
Valverde said he was used to the criticism as part of a job that was never secure.
"We coaches always work with the idea of giving it our all to each match," Valverde said. "We know how soccer is and that there is a permanent instability in teams when you are not getting good results or when you lose. Now that we have lost I suppose people will talk about it, but I remain focused on my job."
Valverde's next job is to prepare for the visit of Granada on Jan. 19.
In the meantime, Atletico will face crosstown rival Real Madrid in the Super Cup final on Sunday.