Balance key to Barcelona’s unstoppable march to Liga crown
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) While steering Barcelona to its 25th Spanish league crown, Ernesto Valverde led a quiet revolution at the Catalan powerhouse.
Ever since Johan Cruyff stamped his style on Barcelona as a player and coach, the club has shown disdain for sacrificing beautiful displays of attacking football for something as pragmatic and mundane as the final score.
That changed slightly in Valverde’s first season in charge at Barcelona.
Lionel Messi was still there to work his magic at Camp Nou. But Valverde, a former Barcelona player and successful manager at several clubs, gave priority to winning matches through a balanced approach, even at the cost of not continuing the flashier collective play under predecessors Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola.
It’s hard to argue with the outcome. Barcelona never faltered in its march to the title and broke a Liga milestone set by Real Sociedad in 1980 by going 39 matches without a loss dating back to the end of the last campaign. It is currently 42 matches unbeaten in the league.
Barcelona clinched the title with a 4-2 win over Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday, completing a domestic double for the eighth time in club history only a week after routing Sevilla 5-0 in its best performance of the season to claim a fourth consecutive Copa del Rey.
And with four matches remaining, Barcelona has the chance to become the first team to go through all 38 rounds without losing in the competition since the 1930s, when the league only had 10 teams compared to the current 20.
Here is a look at how Barcelona won its seventh league title in the last decade:
Eight months ago, Barcelona looked anything but championship material.
The Catalan club was reeling from the shock departure of Brazil star Neymar after Paris Saint-Germain tapped its Qatari owners to pay a world-record 222 million euros ($262 million) to trigger his buyout clause in August.
Fans’ worst fears regarding the impact of Neymar’s exit seemed to be confirmed when Barcelona was then trounced in both legs of the Spanish Super Cup by Real Madrid.
The dark cloud that hung over the club was best expressed by defender Gerard Pique, who said after the 5-1 aggregate defeat to its fierce rivals that, for the first time in nearly a decade, Barcelona was clearly ”inferior” to Madrid.
But while Barcelona’s players and fans forecast a long road back, Valverde got down to work and converted the crisis into the opportunity to restructure the team that had already started to falter under Luis Enrique the previous season.
The 54-year-old Valverde, long considered one of Spain’s top coaching minds, saw that the club had more than enough scoring power in Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez up front, and that its real issue was re-establishing its dominance in midfield.
Valverde’s switch to 4-4-2 from the 4-3-3 that had become untouchable at the club made Barcelona a much more reliable team. Wing backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto flourished in their incorporations in attack and Ivan Rakitic took a step forward as its dynamo with his high work rate in midfield, sometimes even giving rest to holding midfielder Sergio Busquets.
With Neymar gone, Suarez playing the role of a formidable sidekick, and Andres Iniesta entering the twilight of his career, this was Messi’s team more than ever.
Free-floating across the attack and dipping back into midfield, Messi was both Barcelona’s top scorer and passer.
The 30-year-old Argentina forward poured in the goals, scoring 32 to lead all scorers in the competition. He proved particularly deadly from set pieces with seven goals from free kicks and lined up time and again with Alba in his runs forward from the left flank.
Suarez shook off a slow start to the season and has netted 23 goals, with several late goals proving decisive.
Iniesta again provided the counterpoint to Messi with his vision and poise on the left side of the midfield. Spain’s hero from the 2010 World Cup, who will turn 34 on May 11, finished his 16th season with the club with his 31st and 32nd titles.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen matured into one of the world’s top goalkeepers in his second season as Barcelona’s regular starter. Long gone are the German’s risky passes that turned into costly errors in his first years with the club. Ter Stegen became a rock in goal and will certainly head to the World Cup with Germany this summer.
While Barcelona got modest contributions from blockbuster signings Ousmane Dembele, who was injured during the first half of the season, and winter arrival Philippe Coutinho, it did receive a major boost early in the campaign from midfielder Paulinho, who scored six goals through the first 17 rounds.
Barcelona’s knack for scoring in the final minutes in important away matches was key to keeping it at the top of the table.
Barcelona scored goals in the final 10 minutes to take points at Getafe, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Villarreal and Espanyol, while Suarez and Messi scored in the 88th and 89th minutes to snatch a dramatic 2-2 draw at Sevilla.
Messi and Suarez both found the net in a dominant 3-0 display at the Santiago Bernabeu to virtually end Madrid’s title defense in December.
Three weeks later, Messi, Suarez and Paulinho scored as Barcelona erased a 2-0 deficit in a 4-2 victory at Real Sociedad for its first victory in San Sebastian since 2007.
Messi rose to the occasion again in Atletico’s last credible chance to mount a title challenge in March, curling a free kick over the barrier and inside the post for a crucial 1-0 win. That left Barcelona eight points ahead and a clear path to the title.