May 17, 2014: Atletico Madrid needs a draw against Barcelona to win an unlikely La Liga title at Camp Nou, the home of the reigning champion. It is trailing 1-0 until Diego Godin scores from a set-piece, and Atletico wins the title.
May 17, 2015: Barcelona needs a win against Atletico Madrid to clinch the La Liga title at Vicente Calderon, the home of the reigning champion. It is 0-0, and Cristiano Ronaldo has just put Real Madrid, its only challenger, one goal up. Then Lionel Messi takes over; he exchanges a sharp one-two with Pedro inside the area and with a quick shimmy of his feet, beats Jan Oblak in the Atletico goal. Barcelona wins 1-0 and another title is secured.
No matter that Neymar and Messi were both booked in the final minutes as Atletico objected to the visitors’ time-wasting tactics. After the final whistle, the Barcelona team huddled in celebration and shared hugs from assorted staff members. Then the two strikers sought each other ought and embraced. It felt meaningful.
Twelve months on, the names were the same but the result was emphatically different. Barcelona remains on track to win the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League, something it has only done once in its history: in Pep Guardiola’s first season in 2008-09.
If Guardiola’s achievement rarely seemed in doubt (aside from losing game one to Numancia and drawing game two to Santander in that season), that of his former teammate Luis Enrique is far more dramatic.
Only five months ago, the club was in ‘institutional crisis’: FIFA handed it a transfer ban for regularly breaking youth transfer regulations; sporting director Andoni Zubizaretta was sacked after criticizing president Josep Maria Bartomeu; Zubi’s assistant Carles Puyol, recently retired as a defender, resigned in support; Lionel Messi failed to turn up for the traditional Christmas public training session, after a row with Luis Enrique when dropped from the side that lost to Real Sociedad. And Bartomeu, under pressure, brought forward the presidential elections by one year to this summer.
“Total Crisis!” was the headline in Sport newspaper on January 6. El Pais was concerned was that Messi would soon leave. “He’s fed up with losing and does not see victories under Lucho [Luis Enrique],” wrote Ramon Besa. " Barca has become a machine of destruction with Rosell and Bartomeu. The deterioration, the degradation and the decadence are gathering speed with the absence of a project and leadership at the Camp Nou.”
So, what changed? Ronaldo winning the Ballon D’Or award one week later had an impact; not least when he declared that he intended to win a fourth award to draw level with his Argentine rival. Messi would have bristled at that; Ronaldo’s comments were the catalyst for a truce at Barcelona, where the senior players agreed that Messi could become the best, again. And so he did.
Some of Messi’s performances in the second half of the season have been electric; not least Champions League performances against Manchester City and in the first leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich, when two goals and one assist sealed a 3-0 win. The possibility that existed in January that he might move is now unthinkable again. 26 goals in 21 games this calendar year. Even though Ronaldo scored a hat-trick Sunday as Real Madrid beat Espanyol 4–1, which makes the Portuguese likely to win the Pichichi award for top scorer, Messi’s single goal Sunday was more important.
Barcelona has now beaten Atletico four times out of four this season; compared to last season, when it failed to win any of six games with Tata Martino in charge. Barcelona has played this season–at least, the second half–with energy and intensity, with motivation and desire. Those qualities were questioned at times under Martino, and as Spanish writer Rafael Leon put it: “Tactically there was nothing remarkable… If all the players give everything, coupled with their extraordinary talent, this is a natural conclusion.”
Except that’s a little unfair. The forward line of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez has scored over 100 goals between them, and Luis Enrique has made the team less reliant on possession, and more dangerous on the counter-attack.
Messi’s 41 league goals is more than the total all season for 11 teams in La Liga; Neymar’s 37 goals would have top scorer at Barcelona in 74 out of the last 84 seasons. And also Suarez, the difference-maker in Europe against Paris Saint-Germain, a player who has exploded at the right time for Barcelona, after his delayed debut.
To put this success just down to the strikers is also reductive. Barcelona began the season with seven consecutive clean sheets; it has ended it with eight in its last nine games. Real Madrid has outscored the champion by three goals; but has conceded 16 more. The 19 goals conceded betters the 2009 treble-winning side (35 goals), the 2011 title-winners (21 goals) and even Atletico’s last season (26).
In part this is down to an improvement in set-piece play, both defensive and offensive, for which assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue has been credited. (Incidentally, Unzue was the first person Luis Enrique hugged when the final whistle blew.) Barcelona has scored more set-piece goals than ever before–even Messi and Jordi Alba got in on the act, while center back Jeremy Mathieu timed his two headers, in wins over Real Madrid and Celta Vigo, to perfection.
In recent years, Atletico Madrid has been the set-piece king in Spain, but even it failed to breach the Barcelona back-line from a dead ball.
Barcelona is now two games from the treble–the Copa del Rey final is against Athletic Bilbao, whom Barcelona beat 2-0 (Round 2) and 5-2 (Round 22) this season–and if it wins those two games, the next question will surely be: which team is better, 2009 or 2015?
Meanwhile, up in the boardroom, president Bartomeu can afford a smile. Back in March, his approval rating in a fans’ poll was at a lowly 15 per cent in a fans’ poll. Backing Luis Enrique might have sealed his future this summer. How could club members possibly vote for a change after such a season?