Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Atletico Madrid made it a case of one down, two to go for Barcelona in their quest for treble-winning immortality.
Amid this rousing conclusion to a campaign he once seemed unlikely to see out, coach Luis Enrique might allow himself to wonder where it all went right.
World Cups provide an opportunity to take the temperature of the global game and, in Brazil last year, Barcelona’s stars were in worryingly ill health.
The Spanish contingent returned early from a humiliating campaign that appeared to sound the death knell for the tiki-taka style perfected during Pep Guardiola’s golden reign at Camp Nou. Although Lionel Messi helped Argentina to the final, he was a shadow of his irresistible best.
Luis Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini to earn a four-month global ban but still became Barca’s marquee close-season signing, a year after the acquisition of Brazilian superstar Neymar – a deal that placed former club president Sandro Rosell and his predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu at the centre of a tax-fraud probe.
Throw in a 14-month transfer ban for breaching FIFA rules on the signing of youth players and Barcelona’s morally loaded motto, Mes que un club (More than a club), rang hollow. For much of the first half of this season, the identity crisis seeped onto the pitch.
The lowest ebb came on January 4 as the rotation policy that ultimately served Luis Enrique handsomely left him on the brink of the sack. Messi started on the bench as Real Sociedad won 1-0 on a rain-soaked night in San Sebastian.
Reports over the subsequent days painted a picture of a club on the brink of mutiny, with a rift established between coach and star man.
But, as the finishing touches were readied for his Camp Nou obituary, Luis Enrique masterminded a trio of January league and cup wins against Atletico – Barca’s tormentors over six winless encounters in 2013-14. Messi’s return to his dazzling best in the 3-1 Liga win on January 11 felt particularly significant.
There has been no let up from Messi and company since then. That triumph over Diego Simeone’s side was the first of 17 in 19 Liga games heading into the return fixture, where the reverse of Atletico sealing the title in Catalonia 12 months ago was sweetly completed.
The ‘MSN’ forward line has fallen thrillingly into place, every match deepening an understanding that baffles the world’s premier defenders.
Suarez managed three goals for Barcelona in 2014 but has added 21 since the turn of the year. Neymar’s 37 in 48 appearances would be the standout if Messi had not helped himself to 54 goals in as many matches this term, crowned by his typically brilliant effort on Sunday to clinch Barca’s 23rd La Liga crown and fifth in seven seasons.
The fact that the trio are expertly fed by long passes and quick transitional play as much as by Barcelona’s trademark precision football underscores the successful evolution of this team under Luis Enrique.
He also boasts a defence where Gerard Pique and Dani Alves have rediscovered form that looked to have deserted them, while Jordi Alba is arguably the game’s finest left-back. They have conceded a mere 19 goals in La Liga.
In midfield, Ivan Rakitic has made Xavi’s move towards retirement more painless than could ever have been imagined. Like fellow close-season recruit Suarez, the Croatian has helped to provide streetwise steel to sit alongside Barcelona’s artisan qualities.
The 21st century has been a trophy laden time for Barca, but few of their successes have come in the face of such relative adversity. Beneath the football that makes the purists purr lies the iron will of great players who would not be denied.
As the transfer ban begins to bite and Bartomeu and Rosell are hauled before the courts, the debate over Barcelona’s heart and soul will rumble on.
But the fact that Luis Enrique and his players are winners to the core is beyond dispute.
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