This article can also be found in the first issue of Onside Inzaghi alongside much more on the top 5 European leagues.
“How do you feel?” Ernesto Valverde was asked after a 4-2 win over Deportivo La Coruna secured the league title, and Depor’s relegation, in April. “I don’t know,” he replied, “like someone who has just won the league.” While Valverde’s understated response may have been characteristic, it also felt appropriately low key. “I imagine that when time passes I’ll realise this doesn’t happen every day.” he explained, “I suppose that’s the problem with winning it with four games left, if it was the last minute of the last day maybe we would still be out there. We wouldn’t be happier but maybe we would be more expressive.”
Although he remains stoically calm, Valverde preferring to shift the focus to his team, the 54 year old’s achievements are difficult to ignore. Barcelona had opened their campaign with a 5-1 aggregate loss to then reigning La Liga and double European champions Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa, a tie that led Gerard Pique to state that this was the first time he had felt “inferior” to Madrid. Nevertheless, Barca won 11 of their first 12 La Liga outings and opened a 10 point gap to both Madrid sides, Valencia in second 4 points back. By the halfway stage Barca were 9 points clear at the top, a mammoth 16 points ahead of Real and still undefeated. When asked what he did to change things, Valverde simply responded “I tried not to get in the way.”
Former club Athletic Bilbao’s drop off from four successive European campaigns to a lowly 16th this year underlines Valverde’s modesty. This is the first title won by a team who were unbeaten at that point since 1932 and the earliesttitle in 20 seasons, Barca surpassing Real Sociedad’s unbeaten 38 game record in the process, also set over two campaigns in 1979 and 1980. The record is now 43. Barcelona account for seven of the last ten league titles while this is the eighth double in their history, three of those were also in the last ten years. Adding a 5-0 Copa del Rey final win too, ‘Who are the best team in Spain?’ appears to be silly question but unfortunately for Barcelona so is: ‘Who are the best team in Europe?’
As resounding as their victory remains, Valverde’s unexpected achievements remain coloured by other forces. “Only one person gets to pick the best player,” explained Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone after their crucial loss to Barca in March, “and the best player is with them. If we took the Barcelona shirt off Messi and put him in an Atletico shirt, we might have won.” Although his relative goal record may not attest to the fact, Lionel Messi’s influence has been obscene even by his unearthly standards in 17/18. With the title all but assured following the Atleti win, the Catalan leaning Sport’s headline read “God’s League”. While less devine displays in the Champions League caveat such praise, a sense Messi omnipotence has characterised the Spanish domestic campaign.
Without the Argentine, Barcelona were comparatively frail and often a little lightweight. 2-0 down at Sevilla, their unbeaten record under serious threat, Messi’s introduction lead to Luis Suarez’s 88th minute strike and a Messi equalizer just a minute later. Unsurprisingly the best player of all time is sorely missed. As a result it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Messi won the title and did so in spite of, by Barca’s standards, an average cast of supporting acts. Barcelona became a little less exuberant and free-flowing and a little more effective and solid this year. Other titles may have been harder fought but they were won with far more style and grace.
Messi’s supremacy was underlined by a bizarre omission for what will become a legendary trip to Levante. A game that will tarnish Barcelona’s victories this year. With the World Cup approaching, the league title secured and just two games to play, Messi’s fitness - extreme tiredness having been a clear issue in Brazil 2014 - needed to be protected. With a friendly trip to South Africa during the week to come, for which a Messi appearance had been promised, Messi was left at home. 56 minutes in Barcelona were 5-1 down.
Gerard Pique’s introduction, also rested, after 31 minutes had done little to brace the rising tide of Paco Lopez’s in form Levante. Although a Philippe Coutinho hat trick helped Barca back to 5-4, they were unable to complete the comeback and their unbeaten season was, in foolish, fascial circumstances, over. Barca had even survived 45 minutes with ten men in the classico a week earlier, again largely thanks to Messi. While the ‘invincible’ tag carries less weight than in England, their title was skewed further.
Context remains crucial in Spain. Whatever Barcelona’s on-paper achievements they will perpetually be cast in contrast to Real Madrid’s. After a poor start to the league campaign, Cristiano Ronaldo remarkably only managed 4 league goals before Christmas, Madrid found themselves cut adrift before their form recovered. As a result the usual, arguably only, competition for La Liga’s top spot was removed meaning the feeling that Barcelona won the league by default is also inescapable. Gareth Bale’s scissor kick, Zinedine Zidane’s ultimate mic drop and a 13th European cup, an unprecedented third Champions League win in succession, casts even darker shadows over the Nou Camp. As a result, Barca may have won the league but they arguably haven’t bested Real Madrid, which, in their ubiquitous battle, remains paramount.
The weight of context was amplified further by Barcelona’s calamitous exit form the same competition. “Mission Impossible” highlighted the Italian perspective on the front of Gazzetta dello Sport as Barca took a 4-1 lead to Rome for the second leg of their Champions League quarter final tie. The ensuing 3-0 defeat, loss on away goals and Peter Drury explosion may have been a shock but it was also deserved. The defeat was “a failure with no excuses” proclaimed Sport while Valverde admitted that the debacle ‘marked’ their season. Barca were complacent and they can have no complaints, 4-1 at the Nou Camp having proved a remarkably flattering result as did the defeat of Chelsea in the previous round. Barcelona somehow escaping London with a draw and an away goal despite Willian’s best efforts. A sole mistake that presented Iniesta with the chance to slot in Messi proved pivotal.
Despite the theoretical achievements of Barcelona across the campaign, of Messi and Valverde in particular, the lingering sense of the underwhelming highlights an emerging, perhaps even entrenched, trend across European football - that the league title no longer carries weight for a certain level of club. While the chasm between Europe’s top 8 to 10 sides and the rest has been growing for some time, the goals of the two tiers have truly become divorced in recent years.
While they may be in a unique position, in that that cup defines them as an entity, it could be argued that Real Madrid only really play for one competition, the Champions League. Their measly brace of league titles in the last ten seasons wilts next to their tally of four European cups in the last five seasons. While the European cup may have represented the pinnacle of a great side in the past, Madrid have managed to find a way to, in relative terms, ‘grind out’ Champions League triumphs. As a result their place as one of the best sides in history, which should be assured given their monuments achievement, remains debatable.
As discussed earlier in this issue, PSG are cast in a similar mould. Although painfully unsuccessful in following the same goals, they have also self defined themselves by winning, or challenging for, the Champions League, having won five of the last six Ligue 1 crowns and the last eight domestic cups on offer as part of three trebles in four years. Juventus and especially Bayern Munich are starting find themselves in similar positions. Juve reached seven consecutive league titles this season, the last four have been doubles, while Bayern made it six Bundesliga wins in a row. In the last six seasons only Napoli, Roma, Lyon and Monaco (who actually won the league) have been closer than 10 points to those three sides at the top of their tables, all of whom long for European success.
While the leagues themselves remain relevant, the top sides’ priorities are shifting even further away from domestic competition. Perhaps a European super league is closer than we think. For Barcelona and Valverde their achievements remain undeniable, even if the perception of them may be coloured by a series of, form their point of view, unfortunate events. Should Ernesto Valverde and Leo Messi (perhaps with the help of Antoine Greizmann) bring another title to the Nou Camp next season, hopefully the coach’s will response to the question of ‘How do you feel?’ will be something other than: “Like someone who has just won the league.”