Although Ernesto Valverde’s men had long since secured the league title and Copa del Rey crown, defeat in Valencia – minus the rested Lionel Messi – will be difficult to digest given it came in the penultimate game of the campaign. A case of so near, yet so far.
Let’s not forget though the nine months or so that have been. Barcelona sauntered to the La Liga title with minimum fuss, leaving Atletico Madrid and more so eternal rivals Real Madrid in their wake, to once again preside over Spanish football.
However, last month’s dramatic Champions League quarter-final exit away at Roma (4-4 on aggregate) is a wound that will take some time to heal.
Here, Brendon Netto and Stuart Appleby take part in our debate, answering: Has Barcelona’s season been a success or failure?
BRENDON NETTO SAYS IT HAS BEEN A SUCCESS
Given the way Barcelona excelled up until the final stretch, a somewhat underwhelming end to the campaign appears to have cast a false sense of underachievement over the season as a whole.
Perhaps we’re forgetting where the Catalans were in the prelude, one dominated by the shocking departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain – unceremoniously disbanding the celebrated ‘MSN’ triumvirate – while Real Madrid won the Super Cup to further their brand as Europe’s all-conquering force.
In Ernesto Valverde they had a manager they didn’t fully trust to navigate them through what seemed likely to unfold as a treacherous season. But the Basque coach did precisely that with his calm persona serving to settle his troops on the field of battle.
He worked around Neymar’s exit and Ousmane Dembele’s injury by shifting to a more pragmatic but ultimately stable 4-4-2 formation. Valverde dared deviate from Barca’s headstrong philosophy that relied heavily on their trademark brand of tiki-taka football and for that he may never be truly accepted at Camp Nou.
But there can be no question that he exceeded the expectations that were modest to say the least on day one. The Catalans stormed to the La Liga title, so nearly coming through it unbeaten to make history, falling only at the penultimate hurdle at Levante.
That Real Madrid had an especially poor campaign is an unfair caveat as Barca were exceptional on their own. They let themselves down in the Champions League, limply surrendering in Rome at the quarter-finals stage.
A rather cautious approach from Valverde on that occasion proved questionable and he was similarly derided for his decision to leave Lionel Messi at home for the trip to Levante. He can nevertheless hold his head up high, as can his squad of players.
The standards at Barcelona are ridiculously high but to secure the domestic double and dismiss the season as a failure for falling short of a treble and not blowing away the opposition at every time of asking is simply preposterous.
STUART APPLEBY SAYS IT HAS BEEN A FAILURE
The pre-season objective of Valverde was obviously to wrestle back the La Liga crown – which he achieved spectacularly – but breaking up Real’s monopoly of Champions League success (three victories in four seasons, potentially four in five later this month) had to be a target of equal measure.
The pessimistic and ultimately conservative approach the former Athletic Bilbao coach employed against Roma in the quarter-finals, when in possession of a healthy 4-1 first leg advantage, proved to be fatal. Barca were duly punished and deservedly so. That the big-names failed to leave any footprints that night in the Italian capital is a responsibility they share with Valverde, while leaving Lionel Messi painfully isolated in a display lacking togetherness but overall complete lethargically cannot be forgiven all too easily.
Valverde simply refused to change personnel until late on and a rigid yet ineffective 4-4-2 system that Roma cut through like a knife. A huge chance went begging for Barcelona and it was a genuine opportunity missed to take a big stride back to the European success they last enjoyed in 2015. If you also factor in Los Blancos’ European dynasty is seemingly closer to the end of its cycle than the start, then failure to progress through to the semi-finals is a bold black mark against this campaign.
The reliance on Messi has and always will be huge for a once in a generation talent, and while there have been many other standouts – Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Samuel Umtiti being the notable names – the Catalans have struggled to find a way to move forward without the Argentine. At the start of the campaign, going unbeaten throughout the course of 38 games would probably not have been mentioned, even among the powers that be of a club of Barca’s stature, but given they were so close to doing just that – losing against Levante felt like a real sickener and takes all the gloss off of their hard work in La Liga.
With such an historic feat within their grasp – one that will unlikely come around again – their approach at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia was lacklustre and frail defensively in a game of such huge importance. Resting Messi – which gave a huge psychology boost to the opposition – was also a mistake. Barca had the chance to secure history but have just left Real Madrid, again, with the opportunity to add to theirs.
The 27-year old forward has been heavily linked for a move to the Camp Nou, with Barca heavily rumoured to be willing to meet his €100 million buyout clause.
And speaking after the Blaugrana’s 1-0 win in the final game of the La Liga season, against Real Sociedad, Messi praised Griezmann, although the Argentine has not been made privy to the club’s transfer plans.
“Obviously, I like Griezmann,” Messi said. “He is one of the best players at the moment.
“There is a lot of talk about it, but I don’t know if he is coming or not. We are used to the best players coming here, and Griezmann is one of the best.”
According to reports, Messi has also called the Frenchman to let him know that he would be welcomed in the dressing room at the Nou Camp.
Griezmann, meanwhile, was jeered by a section of home fans during Atletico’s game against Eibar, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
Pictures and video on social media from around 1am on Monday local time show Iniesta sitting on his own in the centre circle, with the stands around him empty, apparently taking photographs on a phone.
The 34-year-old midfielder is leaving Barca this summer, 22 years after joining their academy.
The vast haul of trophies he has won over that time includes four Champions League and nine La Liga titles.
In a video that appeared on Iniesta’s Twitter feed at around 1.40am local time, he said: “Hello everyone, I’m still here. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for me to go. Thank you for all the love, it’s been a magical day, an unforgettable day. You will always be in my heart.
“Many years, many feelings, many emotions, but without doubt I will never be able to return all the love and respect that you’ve shown me during this time. A big kiss for everyone.”
— Andrés Iniesta (@andresiniesta8) May 20, 2018
His performance during Barca’s 1-0 win over Real Sociedad at the stadium on Sunday concluded with his substitution in the 82nd minute, and he received a rapturous reception as he departed the field.
Iniesta, who had had tears in his eyes, then addressed supporters on the pitch after the final whistle, with him quoted by Marca as saying: “I will move on and carry you all in my heart forever.
“It’s been a wonderful 22 years, full of pride, and it’s been a pleasure to represent this club.
“I thank you for all the love and respect that you’ve given me since I arrived as a child, I now leave as a man.”
Before the game, a mosaic had been formed in the stands, turning Iniesta’s number eight on its side to form the infinity symbol. Iniesta signed a “contract for life” with Barcelona last October.
— FC Barcelona 🏆🏆 (@FCBarcelona) May 21, 2018
Provided by Press Association Sport