Relying on Messi brilliance not enough for Barcelona

Andy West 28/05/2017
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Messi enjoyed a magical season but his team-mates didn't.

Although Luis Enrique was able to celebrate another trophy – his ninth in total – as he made his farewell from Barcelona with a Copa del Rey triumph over Alaves, Saturday night’s game in Madrid also revealed exactly why the time is right for him to leave.

To be blunt, Barca did not play particularly well.

Enrique’s men looked laboured in midfield and vulnerable in defence, with Alaves extremely unlucky not to rock them by taking the lead when Ibai Gomez’s shot hit the inside of the post and rolled across the goalline.

What Barca did have, however, was Lionel Messi. The Argentine star was immense, scoring the first goal with a beautifully crisp strike which wouldn’t have even been a half-chance for most other players, then playing a part in the second goal and magnificently creating the third with a slaloming run and pass.

Messi’s heroics, once again, were enough to paper over the cracks of his team’s structural deficiencies, but that kind of over-reliance upon one player is not enough to take the most important trophies – which is why they lost out to Real Madrid in La Liga and Juventus in the Champions League.

It’s clear that Ernesto Valverde, who is set to be confirmed as Enrique’s replacement today, has a lot of work to do, first and foremost in terms of fashioning his players into an efficient collective unit rather than a group of talented individuals who cross their fingers and hope for Messi’s best.

Enrique’s increasing failure to provide a clear tactical direction has taken the team a long way backwards since his first campaign ended with a league, cup and European treble, and addressing that slide is Valverde’s biggest task.

The good news is that he is inheriting a huge amount of talent. Aside from a starting right-back Barca’s starting eleven does not need many changes, and the summer transfer market is far more about improving the squad’s strength in depth.

But more than the identity of the individuals, Valverde’s has to create a structure which allows everyone to flourish. Because even Messi won’t always rescue him.

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Messi magic inspires Barcelona to retain Copa del Rey

Sport360 staff 28/05/2017

A Lionel Messi masterclass salvaged some silverware to end Barcelona's season and gave coach Luis Enrique a victorious send-off as the Catalans retained the Copa del Rey with a 3-1 win over Alaves on Saturday.

Messi opened the scoring then helped tee up Neymar and Paco Alcacer to lead Barca to a record 29th Cup triumph after Theo Hernandez's brilliant free-kick had briefly brough Alaves level.

Victory means Enrique bows out after three seasons in charge with nine trophies to his name, including the Cup in every year of his reign.

However, once again it was Messi who inspired Barca to bounceback from the disappointment of losing their La Liga title to Real Madrid last weekend with a stunning individual display. Barca were without the suspended Luis Suarez and Sergi Roberto and Enrique was forced into another reshuffle just 11 minutes in as Javier Mascherano was forced off with a head injury. Yet, whilst Barca's depth has been much-criticised this season, Andre Gomes deputised ably at right-back after replacing Mascherano and Alcacer took his chance on a rare start on the big stage in Suarez's absence. In stark contrast to Barca's glorious run of six finals in seven years, Alaves were appearing in Spanish football's showpiece for the first time. The Basques were roared on by the more enthusiastic support at a far from full Vicente Calderon in its last competitive fixture before Atletico Madrid move home next season. And Alaves were left wondering what might have been had they gone ahead when Ibai Gomez's effort came back off the post, ricocheted off the back of Barca 'keeper Jasper Cillessen but somehow squirmed along the goal line and not into the net on 27 minutes. Three minutes later Messi kicked off a thrilling four-goal spell in the final 15 minutes of the half as he exchanged passes with Neymar before curling his 54th goal of the season. However, Barca's initial lead only lasted three minutes. On-loan Atletico left-back Hernandez has been courted by Barcelona, but looks set to become the first player to cross the Madrid divide since 2000 by signing for Real Madrid in the coming weeks. And the 19-year-old showed why he is in such demand by bending a sumptuous free-kick into the top corner. Messi saw a free-kick of his own beaten away by Fernando Pacheco, whilst Ivan Rakitic drilled a low shot just wide as Barca immediately reacted to conceding. Fittingly, Messi was involved once more when Barca did regain the lead as he received Neymar's pass before playing in Gomes and the Portuguese's low cross was tapped home by Neymar at the back post as he scored for the third consecutive season in the Cup final. Barca then put the game to bed in first-half stoppage time when Messi again pulled the Alaves defence apart and his reverse pass freed Alcacer to smash the ball beyond Pacheco into the far corner. The two nearly combined again five minutes into the second period, but this time Pacheco repelled Alcacer's effort on the stretch from Messi's teasing cross. Alaves battled bravely as the second period wore on, but any hope of a fightback was extinguished by the offside flag when Deyverson fired home from close range 20 minutes from time.
Provided by AFP

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Luis Enrique will be remembered for his trophies as well as the criticism

Andy West 26/05/2017
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It’s difficult to know how history will remember Luis Enrique’s time in charge of Barcelona.

Judging by statistics alone, he should be regarded as nothing short of a roaring success, having led the team to a league, cup and European treble during his first season in charge and following up with a domestic double 12 months later.

But even then, at a time when he was guzzling up trophies at a faster rate than his celebrated predecessor Pep Guardiola, there were always doubts over his managerial skills.

Despite seeing Barca defeat the reigning champions of England (Manchester City), France (Paris St Germain), Germany (Bayern Munich) and Italy (Juventus) en route to claiming the 2015 Champions League crown, there were still plenty of people who seriously believed the team was being successful despite their manager, not because of him.

And those disbelievers have been given plenty of new fuel for their fire this season, which saw Barca finish second behind Real Madrid in La Liga for the first time since 2012 and suffer a comprehensive Champions League defeat to Juve.

“We told you so!” the naysayers have been quick to point out, and there are many Barca fans who will be perfectly happy to see the back of a manager they have never really liked or trusted – even though he was such a great playing servant of their club.

And it certainly hasn’t been a good campaign for Barca, whose reliance upon the incomparable Lionel Messi to keep on pulling them out of deep holes was the only thing which kept them competitive in La Liga.

Under Enrique, Barca have become wildly inconsistent. On their day – well, on Messi’s day – they are still capable of beating any opposition, anywhere.

But they have produced far too many poor performances, evidenced by the fact that their four league defeats this season came against opposition who finished ninth or lower: Alaves, Celta Vigo, Deportivo La Coruna and Malaga. None of those teams are world-beaters, but they were all good enough to become Barca-beaters when the Catalans misfired.

Enrique has also fared badly in the transfer market, with Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal, Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne and Denis Suarez all failing to make their mark.

The only truly successful signings in the last three years have been Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Samuel Umtiti – and Enrique was not personally involved in the first two of those recruitments.

The team’s playing style has also taken a hit. It was inevitable that Xavi’s departure would negatively impact Barca’s ability to retain possession in the opposition half, but the extent to which they have turned from the masters of short-passing into a direct counter-attacking outfit has been shocking, upsetting many fans who feel their club’s traditions have been lost.

Amid all this criticism, Enrique really didn’t help himself by being a surly, argumentative character who clearly viewed the media as his enemy and never did anything to attempt to ingratiate himself with the fans – he wouldn’t even acknowledge them with the merest of waves from the sidelines when they sang his name during games.

Those unsatisfactory personal skills also alienated him from his players, with Enrique appearing to spectacularly fail in the task of establishing personal bonds with his stars in the dressing room – not that he’ll be bothered by that kind of thing, anyway.

And yet, and yet…despite all these negatives it’s impossible to avoid going back to the honours board and seeing simple facts: Luis Enrique has won eight trophies during three seasons in charge.

However you look at it that’s impressive, especially when you also consider that Enrique’s Barca have produced lots of fantastically thrilling moments of attacking football.

Those eight trophies could become nine on Saturday, of course, and it would be difficult to begrudge Enrique one final moment in the sun if his team overcomes Alaves in the Copa del Rey final.

Luis Enrique has never been particularly popular, but he has been without doubt successful – sometimes spectacularly so – and he deserves to go out on a high.

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