It was all Barcelona had to keep them going. At the time, the Champions League collapse to Roma felt like the world was falling around the Catalans. The reaction to the dramatic defeat was hysterical, with the finger of blame pointed at everyone from Ernesto Valverde to the Barca board to the Stadio Olimpico groundsman. But they still had their unbeaten league run. Until last weekend.
The Catalans had gone 36 games without defeat until they traveled to Ciudad de Valancia on Sunday to take on Levante. With a money-spinning friendly in South Africa looming, and Lionel Messi contractually obligated to play, the Argentinean was rested and Barca were made to rue his absence, suffering a 5-4 loss. There was to be no unbeaten season. No Invincibles.
Of course, Barcelona still have a La Liga title, their seventh in 10 years, and Copa del Rey to show for their 2017/18 campaign. They have comfortably been the best side in Spain over the past 12 months, bouncing back from the watershed sale of Neymar last summer in impressive and surprising fashion.
And yet there has been something rather underwhelming about Barcelona’s season. The defeat to Levante underlined the problems the Catalans have faced under Valverde and why the former Athletic Bilbao boss is under pressure. With no Messi, they are a different team. They are dependant on their number 10.
Indeed, the Argentinean has dug Barcelona out of countless holes this season. Take their trip to Sevilla earlier in the season, when with just a few minutes left to play the Liga leaders were 2-0 down. Messi was struggling with an injury, but was introduced off the bench nonetheless to salvage the situation. And that’s exactly what he did with an assist and an equaliser late on, seconds from full time.
The loss of Neymar has been absorbed to a certain extent, but Barcelona are still unbalanced without the Brazilian on the left side of their attack. Philippe Coutinho has started to find his feet at his new club in recent weeks, but the former Liverpool playmaker’s role at the Camp Nou is still to be truly decided.
Barcelona have lost a significant part of their identity under Valverde. The ‘Tiki-Taka’ days are long gone, but under Luis Enrique, at least in the early part of his tenure, the Catalans played with a certain swagger. This, for the most part, is no longer the case. There have been occasions this season when Barca have blown away opponents, but even then, their brilliance was down to their quality as individuals.
This is why so many Barcelona fans, for all their binary success this season, remain disgruntled at the way their team has played this season. It has become something of a cliche in recent years, used to mock and deride, but more is expected of Barca as a side and as a club. More than a club. The way they play matters and under Valverde something has been lost in the process.
Defensive depth is needed ahead of the start of next season, with the Catalans requiring a midfield revamp following the exit of stalwart Andres Iniesta. Then there’s Antoine Griezmann, who is expected to pitch up at the Camp Nou this summer. Where will he fit in? What would his arrival say for the future of Luis Suarez, who is coming off the back of a disappointing season?
Valverde certainly deserves to stay in his job beyond the summer. There is no real case for his dismissal, but he must be wary of how a sense of malaise can quickly become overwhelming. Ultimately, it can spell the end for a manager. Barcelona aren’t quite at that stage, but there are issues for them to address over the summer. The disgruntlement of some of their fans shouldn’t be discounted. They have some justification.
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