Barcelona’s eight league titles in 11 years is a once in a generation feat, but the shadow of Liverpool looms large
Barcelona wrapping up their eighth LaLiga title in 11 years on Saturday should not be seen as par for the course, it is a remarkable feat that should be given the credit it deserves.
Consider the context of what they have done. The Blaugrana have consistently blown away all domestic competition in a league where during that time period their opponents included a team that won four Champions Leagues, another that has twice been Champions League finalists, and there was also the added nuisance of a Sevilla side that won three Europa Leagues in three years.
Knockout tournaments can be glorious and unpredictable, but for coaches, leagues are the marathons that truly distinguish a country’s greatest side.
Even the coach of Barça’s fiercest rivals admitted as much, when it would have been easier to point to his own European trophy-haul as a distraction. “LaLiga is the most important competition for me. In the Champions League you have 12 or 13 games. If you win the league it’s bang, bang, bang, every day,” Zinedine Zidane noted earlier this week.
And you can bet the Frenchman will be focusing on Spain’s domestic championship next season.
Diego Simeone, the man in charge of the Blaugrana’s closest league challengers of the last two seasons (and who would probably have a couple more league titles in his trophy cabinet if it wasn’t for the misfortune of bad timing), is similarly clear on the matter. “Barcelona have been the best team in the world in recent years, despite not winning in Europe, the numbers they’ve produced in Spain have been tremendous,” the Argentinian affirmed earlier this season.
LATEST FOOTBALL STORIES
But Barça want more. “Making the extraordinary seem normal” was the slogan on the celebratory t-shirts worn by the squad after the final whistle against Levante. That phrase doesn’t only apply to their supporters, it has also penetrated the mind-set of their players, the people who have to get the job done, week in, week out. Their celebrations on Saturday night felt genuine but also subdued.
The spectacle, with fireworks and lasers, ticked all the necessary boxes but not didn’t quite go full-pelt thanks to the telling decisions for none of the players to make a speech to the crowd.
Aware that in only a few days something huge is once again at stake, the club has been managing every detail with skill. Now, they focus on the cup that their greatest player, Lionel Messi, wants more than any other.
“We won the cup and the league last year but the Champions League irks us. We are going to give everything to bring that beautiful cup back to the Camp Nou,” the Barça captain said in his pre-season speech back in August, throwing down the gauntlet and setting an expectation that has stuck ever since.
How Barça manage the mental aspect of those expectations will be key against Liverpool. In previous years they have been able to call upon a squad deep with experienced, seasoned winners who revelled under that kind of pressure. But as their golden generation is gradually phased out, they now have to rely upon a more human crop to get the job done.
It was no surprise therefore to see how nerves affected some of them in their league title decider on Saturday. Against one of the poorer sides in LaLiga and with one eye on Liverpool, Valverde took the understandable decision to start Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi on the bench.
Without them, there was a touch more anxiety than we are used to seeing from the Catalans in clutch games. It was evident in how Philippe Coutinho passed up several golden chances to open the scoring in the first half. In how Gerard Piqué had to bail out some of his shaky defensive partners as Levante pushed to spoil the party, and in how Valverde felt obliged to bring Busquets on to try and ride out a nervy final 20 minutes.
We have seen those rocky periods before this year – the sleepwalking opening 10 minutes against Manchester United on April 16 stands out.
A repeat against Liverpool, who unlike Levante or United, have the attacking talent and ruthlessness to punish passive opponents, could be fatal for Barcelona’s European hopes.
When the lasers and fireworks were over on Saturday, Valverde, quoting handball legend Valero Rivera, delivered some typically wise words that could prove salient in the coming week: “Winning is difficult, but it is more difficult to win again”.
Barcelona have won – no less than eight times in 11 years. Yet for now, all of that will matter less than whether they win or not in only three days.
Source: SportsLatest TS