Can FC Barcelona win the treble this season?
It was the 4th of January, 2015. On a damp, wet night at the Anoeta, David Moyes’ Real Sociedad were taking on the mighty FC Barcelona. And when Jordi Alba miscued his clearance midway through the first half and put the ball into the back of his own net, the death knell had been sounded. The glory days of Barcelona were slowly drawing to an end, said many including the harbinger of everything good about that grand, old institution – Johan Cruyff.
The retirement of Carles Puyol had left a massive void at the back. Tito Vilanova’s death had left the club shattered. The seemingly endless brouhaha behind the murky dealings of Neymar’s transfer was affecting the players, the team and the reputation of an entity that prided itself on its principle of “Mes que un club” (More than a club). The transfer ban left an even sourer taste in the mouth of the Blaugrana faithful.
And then came the disaster at Anoeta, literally opening the Pandora’s box. Lionel Messi’s fallout with Luis Enrique following the latter's decision to demote the Argentinean as well as Neymar to the bench for the Sociedad clash raised more than just a few questions. In came Adidas, scavengers wanting their biggest superstar to wear their shirt, smelling for the slightest opportunity to take away La Pulga from Camp Nou and away to Bayern Munich, Chelsea or worse, Real Madrid. Things had come to a head. It was crisis time. Luis Enrique was in the line of fire. FC Barcelona was in the slump.
Fast forward to the present, and nobody could’ve envisaged the near-Utopian composure that one finds at the Catalan giants today. A string of comprehensive victories, fuelled by the resurgence of Lionel Messi and the brilliance of Luis Suarez has seen them leapfrog Real Madrid to become the domestic leaders by a healthy margin of four points. With the Clasico seeing them beat their opponents by playing “ugly” football, Barcelona had finally mastered that valuable lesson – it is all about winning and not winning well on the big stages. Leading into the international break, here they are, leading the La Liga, set to play the finals of Copa Del Rey at their backyard and ready to face PSG in the crunch Champions League quarterfinal clash. In simple words, they’re on course to become the first club to win two trebles in the Champions League era.
The resurgence of Lionel Messi
The driving force behind this rise from the ashes to the top of the table has been the form of their talisman, Leo Messi. The Argentinean has had a phenomenal 2015, even by his own stratospheric standards. While he’s always scored goals for fun, the sheer childlike glee with which he’s scoring them now is some sight to see. Gone are those days when he roamed around the pitch, seemingly disinterested, with thoughts of pizzas on his mind, as former Barcelona sporting director, Carles Rexach amusingly alleged. He’s running at the defenders again, with the nutmegs outnumbering the goals, and the goals outnumbering the matches he’s played.
Ever since his much-publicised rift with Enrique and the furore over his uncertainty at the club earlier this year, he’s been a changed man. Just when the media were chomping at the bit to deride their favorite son with Arnab Goswami asking that all-so-important question – “Burning Question: Why did Leo Messi like Chelsea on his Instagram account?”, the little master did what he does best – he let his feet do the talking. His mazy, head-spinning run against Eibar vindicated this fact finally. Lionel Messi was well and truly back to his mesmerising best. So much, so that, he’s now overtaken Cristiano Ronaldo in the Pichichi battle, something that would’ve sounded laughably absurd at the turn of the year.
Luis Suarez proving his critics wrong
If Leo Messi has been a man on a mission, Luis Suarez has been a man on a “prove-haters-wrong” spree, probably inspired by his famous Adidas advertisement. After a slow start to life in Catalunya, El Pistolero is scoring goals for fun now, justifying his nickname and the astronomical sum of money dished out on him by the club. He’s proved that his predator instincts are as sharp as ever, scoring some very crucial goals – with the ones against Manchester City and the perfect No. 9 goal in the Clasico standing out.
More than his goals, however, it is the energy, zeal, effervescence and enthusiasm that he brings to the pitch that has rubbed off well on the club. His unreal lateral movement and unparalleled intelligence have paved the way for Messi, Neymar and Rakitic to tear opposition defences apart. The Croat’s goal against City is a perfect example of this – one look at the movement of Suarez and Neymar and how they draw the defenders away, shows the planning and work that goes behind things of beauty such as that goal. Needless to say, what Karim Benzema does at the Bernabeu, Suarez does it better – and more.
Now, how is it that the MSN has suddenly clicked into gear and started performing like a well-oiled machine all of a sudden? What has gone behind this sudden awakening of a beast in slumber? One look at Barcelona’s off the ball movement and their trigger-happy approach to winning it back, shows why the MSN has become more prominent than ever. With subtle changes in tactics and build up play, Enrique has built a team similar to that of Jupp Heyncke’s treble-winning Bayern Munich team. Here is a team that can pass its opposition six feet into the ground when it’s in the mood, but can counter with speed and precision at the same time, as and when required. It isn’t just tiki-taka anymore. The emphasis has shifted from Xavi and Iniesta’s patient manoeuvring to the MSN’s imperious interplay.
The joy with which they bask in each other’s successes, the selflessness of their gameplay and the intelligence to run the opposition ragged has meant that Barcelona are playing football befitting their stature after what seemed like an eternity. Luis Enrique is a man with a plan now – no more experimenting with Mathieu as Left Back or Iniesta in the wing. Each of them has a specific role, something that they’ve carried out to absolute perfection, for nearly a quarter of a year. The camaraderie within the squad can be best exemplified by this priceless moment, in their match against Granada last month.
Real Madrid’s abysmal form in 2015
Also, the last three months has seen the antithesis of Murphy’s Law happening within the Camp Nou – “Whatever can go right, has gone right!” Real Madrid are in the Blaugrana shoes of 2014, with the club being marred by dressing room unrest and off-field issues. Cristiano Ronaldo has looked a pale shadow of himself (0.7 goals per game makes him a pale shadow of himself, oh yes), with his apparent disgust at Gareth Bale’s goal last week and his grand birthday party in the immediate aftermath of the drubbing they got at the hands of rivals Atletico Madrid, being blown out of proportions.
This dressing room unrest, along with a spate of injuries to key players has well and truly halted the Blancos juggernaut of 2014, making things a bit more easy for their fiercest rivals. Indeed, with no more of those potential Clasico six-pointers left this season, Barcelona might have to do something calamitous to let go of the La Liga trophy. However, all factors project to Andres Iniesta lifting the grand, old trophy come May.
And then, there’s the small case of the Copa Del Rey final. Playing Athletic Bilbao is never an easy task, but Barcelona will fancy their chances, especially with the match being played at Camp Nou. The only risk for the Blaugrana would be a lack of focus, something that is entirely possible with absolutely vital Champions League encounters preceding and succeeding the summit clash against the Basque outfit. But Messi and Co. will be keen to lay their hands on the first piece of silverware of the season, and hence we can expect a Barcelona side firing on all cylinders, come their showdown with the San Mames outfit.
However, it is the Champions League that is really going to be a measure of this Barcelona side – a team vying for greatness. The importance of winning the ‘Ol Big Ears can’t be stressed enough; Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern is still remembered for the thrashing Madrid gave them in the Champions League and not for his record-breaking domestic double. Thus, needless to say, the Champions League is the most important of all three trophies – the corollary being, it is the hardest to win among all three.
Facing Barcelona is no enviable task for a PSG squad that is high on spirits after their rousing win against Chelsea. However, Barcelona do not have Zlatan Ibrahimovic to contend with, and this, in itself makes their task much easier. Also, they have the advantage of having played (and overcome) PSG rather frequently, and this will definitely stand them in good stead, when the time comes. It is the big two that they’ve to be worried about though – defending champions Real Madrid and the team of their prodigal son, Bayern Munich.
We’ve already gone through the mini-crisis happening at the Bernabeu. And if it goes on any longer, it is safe to say that Iker Casillas and Co. can kiss goodbye to their hard-earned trophy. Bayern Munich is a different beast altogether though. With a playing style reminiscent of Barcelona’s glory years half a decade back, the Bavarians have a well-oiled unit built from the back – a unit that can overwhelm Barcelona in the middle of the park. Now, who’d have thought that Barcelona could be outpassed and outplayed in midfield? But, herein lies Barcelona’s biggest strength – they’re no more a one-dimensional, patient passing unit that can be thwarted by parking a 10-man bus. One can easily envisage the high defensive line of Bayern being torn asunder by the MSN.
Now, while this is easier said than done, it is a distinct possibility. The truckload of injuries in the Bavarian and Madrid camps, the unconvincing football played by the Rojiblancos, the inconsistency of the Parisiens, the relative inexperience of Monaco, Porto and Juventus in the latter stages of this competition all point to one, clear favourite to become the kings of Europe – FC Barcelona.
The time of reckoning is here – the years of underachievement, unrest, and disappointment can be laid to rest, once and for all. With a fit and fighting squad that is peaking at the right time, the sky is the limit for this Barcelona team. With not one, not two, but three trophies up for grabs, it is time for the Blaugrana to seize the moment. The division and infighting can be made things of the past in 40 days.
For 40 days and a 100 Lionel Messi nutmegs later, Barcelona might’ve become the first club in the Champions League era to have won the treble twice. To do it, however, they’ll need to use up every ounce of skill, tact and passion that they have. More importantly, they’ll have to live by their famous anthem – “Tots Units Fem Forca” – “Together, we are stronger!”