Barcelona wrapped up their 25th La Liga title on Sunday night following a thrilling victory at Deportivo La Coruna, in which genius Lionel Messi plundered yet another hat-trick.
It means boss Ernesto Valverde has led Blaugrana to the league and cup double in his first season in charge, following on from the Catalan club’s Copa del Rey success over Sevilla earlier this month.
However, Real Madrid could take some of the gloss off of Barca’s season if Zinedine Zidane guides the Whites to an unprecedented third successive Champions League.
But here, we take a look at the main protanagists behind Barcelona’s season. Starting with the manager…
Valverde provides the midas touch with little fuss
When the former Athletic Bilbao manager arrived at Camp Nou on May 29 last year, he didn’t necessarily inherit the best set of circumstances. Eternal rivals Real Madrid were top dogs domestically and in Europe (again), the drawn-out affair of the Neymar transfer saga was draining and largely out of the blue; and Blaugrana’s transfer business, up to that point, did little to inspire with the arrivals of Gerard Deulofeu, Nelson Semedo and Paulinho, among other fringe stars, hardly setting the world alight at first.
But, after overcoming the disappointment of losing to Los Blancos in the Spanish Super Cup pre-season, Valverde began to get his feet settled under the table and importantly won over key men like Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets – helping him immediately to earn the respect of a dressing room that had apparently fallen out with previous coach Luis Enrique. From the outset, Barcelona hierarchy knew that spellbinding football in the mould of the club’s attacking history would not instantly be produced, but Valverde’s pursuit of reclaiming the La Liga title showed no let up. So it has proved, though, going unbeaten was surely not at the forefront of his mind but is now a distinct possibility.
‘Txingurri’, as Valverde is otherwise known, might be quiet in his overall nature and that remarkable calmness has worn off on his players. While the reliability of his midfield engine room has proved to be crucial, tactically, he hasn’t been scared of asking for more defensive work from playmaking talent like Philippe Coutinho.
His substitutions – often an under-rated part of management – have been on the money also. A classic example being September’s away clash against Getafe. Barcelona looked to be going down 1-0 against the Madrid-based minnows as the big guns failed to fire. Denis Suarez was brought on for Iniesta, he then scored the leveller and went on to set-up the winning goal for Paulinho, another man who was brought on for Ivan Rakitic.
Stellar first season at the helm for Valverde.
Magician Messi never ceases to amaze, helps galvanise Suarez
What hasn’t been said about the legendary Argentine? Everything. Nevertheless, a vintage campaign such as this one yielded 32 La Liga goals (43 in all competitions) and has been a dominating factor in Barcelona’s comfortable stranglehold on Spanish football. Messi’s level of play has, at times, been as high as ever and on a par to his historic 2011-12 season.
The 30-year-old is not a player you instruct to do things to, and as such, Valverde has just stepped aside – like any good manager would do – to give him centre stage. 12 league assists though underline Messi’s worth as the ultimate team player and without him this Barcelona side have looked a bit average at times.
Failure to be able to inspire Barca in Rome during their Champions League quarter-final exit will have hurt Messi more than anyone – but such is the affection he receives in Catalonia – his club and those involved with it would be happy enough to see him lift a World Cup this summer instead.
The little maestro’s impact has boosted everyone at the club, inclusive of Luis Suarez – who at the beginning of the season had many questioning whether he was a spent force. 23 goals and nine assists in 29 league outings put pay to that speculation despite a lingering knee problem, with the two combining brilliantly at times as we saw at the Riazor just two days ago.
The King: Lionel Messi.
There were plenty of other standouts, too…
Samuel Umtiti, this term, has grown into one of the world’s best defenders and is a man Barcelona need to tie down long-term with speculation Manchester United could activate his £53m (Dh 268m) release clause. Aside from a wobble here and there, particularly during the second leg against Roma, the French ace has been a towering presence at central defence. Gerard Pique has been steady but the 24-year-old has been one of the main reasons Barca have conceded the second-fewest goals in La Liga (21), three more than Diego Simeone’s defensive specialists Atletico Madrid.
That solidarity in the backline has ultimately helped boost the confidence of Germany star Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who like Umtiti, has silenced doubters to become one of the very best in his position. He is trying to wrestle the Zamora goalkeeping trophy away from Atleti’s Jan Oblak and has come up trumps with crucial saves when it has mattered this season (think back to Bilbao away and December’s El Clasico win at the Bernabeu where he made important saves to deny Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale).
Ter Stegen’s emergence as Mr Reliable between the sticks, coupled with a granite-like defence domestically, has given Barcelona the best platform for the powers that be to go on and do the business at the top of the pitch.
Samuel Umtiti displaying just how much the Barca jersey means to him.