Why has Barcelona’s unbeaten double been so low-key?
Ernesto Valverde’s side failed in Europe but domestically have been very impressive
Barcelona celebrate after winning against Deportivo de la Coruna at the Riazor to seal the La Liga title. Photo: Lavandeira jr/EPA
The league came to a close at both ends of Riazor, two human circles forming. Deportivo de La Coruña’s players joined together, arms around each other, for a few final words offered quietly and sadly in the rain. As they broke, there were some whistles and they walked slowly towards the tunnel and the second division, relegated again. The manager, their third this season, told them to go with their heads held high, insisting “we’re not angry, we’re unhappy”, but most looked down as they left, eyes lost. In the stands above, there were tears and reproach. Do you understand that, Celso Borges was asked, stopping briefly before departing. “Yes, of course,” he said. “We shouldn’t feel ashamed, but these are difficult moments and it’s hard to digest.”
As he talked, or tried to, behind him another circle had formed: bigger, looser and louder. FC Barcelona’s squad and staff were dancing a sardana, going round and round holding hands. Both clubs had known it was coming but it came together, still in April. A 4-2 victory, secured with a Leo Messi hat-trick, meant the final relegation place was confirmed and so was the league title. Deportivo are down with Las Palmas and Málaga; Barcelona are champions again. That’s seven of the last 10. “Una barbariedad,” Sergio Busquets called it: amazing, incredible, madness, barbaric. They’re champions four games early and unbeaten, cup winners as well. “That’s a barbariedad too,” he said. “Almost perfect.”
“How do you feel?” Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde was asked. “I don’t know,” he started, which is how he starts a lot of answers, “like someone who has just won the league”. But he also felt a little bad: “Going down hurts a lot,” he admitted and Barcelona didn’t stay out on Deportivo’s pitch for long. Over 1,000km away, some fans gathered on the Ramblas. “My son has climbed up a tree, celebrating,” one woman told a radio reporter. “And how old is your son?” she was asked. “Twenty-eight,” she replied. Back at Riazor, the players ducked into the dressing room, where celebratory T-shirts were pulled on, but it was a little low-key, and not just because of Depor. They took a few photos, shouted campeones a bit, and then set off. On Monday night, they will ride a bus around the city.
“I would love to be up here, all this going to my head, throwing confetti around, but I’m a more or less normal bloke,” Valverde said. “I imagine that when time passes I’ll realise this doesn’t happen every day. I suppose that’s the problem with winning it with four games left. If it was the last minute of the last day, maybe we would still be out there. We wouldn’t be happier, but maybe we would be more expressive. But I’m very pleased.”
There was certainly something in that. In part, it is precisely what makes this success so impressive – the first unbeaten league title since 1932, when the season was only 18 games long, and the earliest title won in 20 years – that meant they didn’t let go entirely. They were too good for there to be much drama, an explosion; and for some there’s a risk that this feels like just another league, the ninth won by Messi and Andrés Iniesta, 38 per cent of all those Barça have won, and the seventh for Gerard Piqué and Busquets. In the end, before the end, they won it comfortably: 11 points clear of Atlético Madrid, 15 of Real Madrid, with four games still to go, the only team in Europe’s major leagues still unbeaten having led from the start.
Perhaps with time it will be valued more, particularly if they do finish the season undefeated – Madrid go to the Camp Nou next weekend – which would make it a unique, historic achievement and the cover of El Mundo Deportivo shouted: “Invictus!” Sport said: “There’s nothing better than a double.”
But there is, of course: a treble. They won it away at Deportivo dressed in Roma’s colours, and there was a certain irony in that. For all the success, defeat in Rome has “marked” their season, Valverde admitted. Busquets described it as a “thorn” in their side. Not just because it was so humiliating, a 4-1 lead overturned, but because it was deserved and because it didn’t feel so out-of-keeping with their season. Instead, it seemed to reflect a recent trend: their last four away games in the knock-out phase are two 3-0 defeats, a 4-0 defeat and a fortunate 1-1 draw; they have been eliminated in the quarter-final three years running; and somehow it felt like something like that was coming, underlined the suspicion Barcelona hadn’t always been that good this season.
Then there’s the Real Madrid factor, and it is familiar. This is the eighth double Barcelona have won, twice as many as anyone else. The first two were in 1952 and 1953, the seasons before Alfredo Di Stéfano arrived at Madrid and in the pre-European Cup era. Since then, they won it in 1959, 1998, 2009, 2015, 2016 and 2018. Twice they won the European Cup with it, doubles becoming trebles but the three other times Real Madrid have won the European Cup. This season could be the fourth – and that impacts upon the way it is received.
It shouldn’t. And this time less than ever.
“When you win the league, it looks simple,” Valverde said. But he knows better than anyone that it wasn’t; it may even have been the hardest, most unexpected league title Barcelona have won in a decade; he arrived at a far worse place than he could have imagined and he must have been cursing his timing. “It starts in August, you go through the autumn, the harsh winter, and now it’s spring, and we got here with a certain cushion,” Valverde said. August feels like another era now, but back then Barcelona were in crisis, on the field and off it. Neymar had gone, there was a vote of no confidence in the president, and they even played in front an empty stadium, the political context debilitating. Relationships were broken, confidence gone, collapse inevitable, or so it seemed. This is a club, Valverde noted a few weeks ago, surrounded by a “depressive state”. On Sunday night he admitted: “In August the atmosphere wasn’t the best.” Somehow, though, he postponed – for an entire season.
Asked what he did, Valverde replied: “Tried not to get in the way,” which was typical of him. He added: “I’m not the first manager these players have won the league with; this is my first. I have lost lots of leagues but never won one here before. I haven’t invented anything.”
But just because he doesn’t talk about what he did doesn’t mean no one else should. Forced to reinvent, to change course, confronted with the failure to adequately replace Neymar, he built a block that functioned and was united – “the criticisms of the manager are a disgrace,” said Jordi Alba, who spent the year flying up the wing – while the fixture list brought a little breathing room at the start. They won seven out of seven and got to week 11 with 10 wins. They drew at Valencia and Atlético, then defeated Real Madrid. They kept on. They trailed often, but were never beaten. They often needed saving, Marc-André ter Stegen hugely impressive, but they survived. Against Atlético, they took a giant step towards the title. That was the day it felt like they were there. At Sevilla, the unbeaten run looked like it would slip away, but they got it back, setting a new record.
They had something for sure. Lots of things. Above all, they had Messi of course, scorer of 31 goals and provider of 12 assists – provider of so much more besides. It felt appropriate he should score a hat-trick in the game that took the title, just as he had marked the clásico and scored the goal against Atlético. “You can stop Barcelona but not Messi,” Deportivo manager Clarence Seedorf had said. “Your league,” ran the front page of Marca over a picture of him. It had seemed certain to be Madrid’s. Back in August Piqué admitted that for the first time in nine years at Barcelona he felt “inferior” to his rivals; on Sunday night Messi rightly insisted: “We were superior, much better than the rest.” There was vindication in his words, a message.
“We know it is hard to win the league,” he said. “We had bad moments and we overcame them without losing, which is incredible. We have to value this league, enjoy it, and celebrate it.” – Guardian service