Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas celebrates a goal against Levante
Cesc Fabregas's 26th birthday celebrations on Saturday may have been more subdued than usual after Barcelona's Champions League exit to Bayern Munich on Wednesday, the latest in a series of key matches in which he has failed to impress.
The former Arsenal captain has struggled to live up to sky-high expectations since returning to his boyhood club in the summer of 2011, even prompting media speculation he may move on again at the end of the current campaign, reports Reuters.
Pep Guardiola left him out of some of the club's biggest games towards the end of last season and his replacement as coach, his former assistant and close friend Tito Vilanova, has followed suit.
Fabregas has started 26 of Barca's 33 La Liga matches this term but, more tellingly, only half of the 12 Champions League games.
Vilanova has appeared unsure about where to deploy him and he has alternated between an offensive midfield position or a roving forward role similar to the one he plays for the Spanish national team.
While he has generally been effective in La Liga, netting 10 goals, he has not performed reliably in some of Barca's crucial Champions League clashes or against arch-rivals Real Madrid in La Liga and the King's Cup.
Against Bayern on Wednesday, when he played up front in place of the injured Lionel Messi, he made little impact despite featuring for the full 90 minutes.
His performance drew sharp criticism from Edi Tubau, a Spanish field hockey international who accused Fabregas of a "disgraceful" lack of commitment.
Some sections of the Nou Camp crowd, not for the first time, whistled him despite him being a product of the club's hugely successful youth academy.
Vilanova defended Fabregas at a news conference on Saturday, saying he was a player of "high quality" who Barca had wanted to bring back to the club for a long time before they got him.
"Last season he was second top scorer (behind Messi) and I think this year too," Vilanova said.
"Maybe the fact that the other day (against Bayern) we were all disappointed with the result means the focus is turned more on one player.
"But it was nowhere near the whole stadium (who were whistling him), not even close.
"I still believe he is a very, very, very important player for our team."
Barca's humbling reverse to Bayern, the club's biggest aggregate defeat in Europe, prompted suggestions the squad needed a major overhaul but Vilanova again rejected them.
He drew a comparison with the "Dream Team", which won Barca's first European crown in 1992 but was broken up after a 4-0 drubbing by AC Milan in the 1994 final.
"I don't think this team needs big changes," Vilanova said.
"The 'Dream Team' ... got to a final against a fantastic Milan and the result led to many changes. And the years after that were a lot worse.
"My view on this squad and the players hasn't changed. I don't doubt these players that have given us so much and that we know so well."
Barca have an 11-point lead over last season's champions Real in second and need five points from their remaining five games to secure a fourth La Liga title in five years.
If Real fail to beat Real Valladolid at home later on Saturday a Barca victory against Betis would be enough as they would be at least 13 points ahead with only 12 left to play for.