The history books will not be kind to Barcelona's 2013/14 season. With a five-year high in losses, off-field controversy and markedly inconsistent play, it's been a campaign of lowlights. La Liga is slipping away and the chance for Champions League glory is gone. All that's left for Barca is a showdown with Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final.
A Clasico is always a big deal, but Wednesday's match represents something quite alien for the Catalans: a chance to salvage some pride. It would only be a cup win, a far cry from the silverware that the board and fans alike demand that the Blaugrana win every year, but it would at least be something to hold on to after this disaster of a season. Lose it, however, and things go from bad to worse.
The issues that Barcelona are facing have been building over the past few years to this inevitable climax.
Instead of beginning the process of updating and turning over their roster in the wake of Pep Guardiola's departure, the board, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and former president Sandro Rosell managed to convince themselves that the problems obvious to most observers weren't as bad as they appeared.
Rather than bolstering the defense, an enormous sum of money was spent to secure the services of Neymar. Despite his talent and the likely long-term benefits he'll provide the club, attacking prowess wasn't an immediate need. As this season has progressed, injuries to defenders have cost the team dearly and even Neymar hasn't been able to bring the fear factor back to Barca's attack.
First-year head coach Gerardo Martino seems likely to bear the lion's share of blame for the Blaugrana's disappointing campaign. The problems he's been trying to overcome for the past months were either beyond the control of any coach, or beyond his abilities to deal with.
The simple truth is that Barca are not going to win the league this season, barring a miraculous recovery combined with an Atlético Madrid collapse. Barca are out of the Champions League before the semifinals for the first time since 2008/09. That season was also the last time they lost five times in La Liga, but since they won the title it hardly mattered.
Defender Martin Montoya admitted something we all suspected in telling Barca's official website, "Mentally we're pretty screwed up," after their 1-0 loss against Granada on Saturday, and although team captain Carles Puyol refuted the young fullback's claims, it's difficult to believe that Montoya's comments are far from the truth at this point.
And that's why it's so important for Barcelona to beat their archrivals on Wednesday.
Make no mistake, there's a storm coming. Whether Barca fans want to admit it or not, changes must be made, and should have been made over the past several transfer windows. If the club's appeals against FIFA fail, the Blaugrana will face a year of not being able to begin making the alterations to their roster that are required to restore their proud club to the level they expect.
But if Barcelona can raise the Copa del Rey -- and deny Madrid silverware in the process -- they can at least dispel the creeping malaise that's infecting this team. It's far better to go into an offseason of transition on a high note than a low, and a win could reverse the negative momentum of the past week, allowing the Blaugrana to finish their league season on a high.
Conversely, a loss could make everything even worse. Being dumped out of the Champions League and the Copa del Rey in the space of a week while giving up ground in the title race would be enough to break most teams, and thanks to Barcelona's extraordinary success they're not very well-equipped to handle adversity. Blips have been few and far between for the club in recent years, and they may not have the ability to arrest the slide once it begins.
Despite falling off their pedestal since the glorious highs around the turn of the decade; despite having, by their standards, a tremendously poor season, Barcelona remain one of Europe's elite sides. If a cup win and a hard-fought (if ultimately futile) title chase is Barcelona at their worst and the issues with defense are addressed sensibly this summer, they'll be back at the top of the game quickly.
It's not impossible for Barcelona to regroup sensibly after a rough season if they lose on Wednesday. It's simply far less likely. A victory would arrest the mental rot; defeat means having to do battle with it on its own terms. And with two wins already against Real Madrid this year, there's every chance that this is the moment Barcelona turn things around.