Saturday 15 December 2018

Comment - Why reports of Barcelona's demise have proved to be premature

Barcelona's Argentinian striker Lionel Messi
Barcelona's Argentinian striker Lionel Messi
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Reports of Barcelona’s terminal decline have been widely circulated in recent months, after a dark cloud of pessimism descended over the Nou Camp last summer.

Never mind that Barcelona have been the clear front runners in the Spanish title race for most of this season or that they have secured a place in the Copa de Rey final against Sevilla, as the lingering perception remains that the team that has struck fear into all their opponents over the last decade have lost their aura.

While that damning verdict has not been backed up on the pitch, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde and his players have been fighting negativity on and off the pitch in recent months, with falling attendances at their Nou Camp home evidence of a curious dip in enthusiasm for a side that still plays some of the most sumptuous football in Europe.

Average home crowds of 55,121 are 22.4 per-cent down on last season’s 77,443, with the perception that Barcelona are a team in a state of flux seemingly contributing to their sliding popularity among their loyal fan base.

Political unrest in Catalunya at the back end of 2017 may be partly to blame for the some losing  focus on their most celebrated export, with the champagne football associated with this club over the last decade lacking at time Valverde’s watch.

The standards set by Barcelona in the club’s golden era have been so high that any dip is perceived as a slump, but that is not the only reason why Barcelona have been rattled this season.

Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain last summer was viewed as something of an embarrassment for Barcelona, as a club that has rarely sold its best players against their will were left stunned by a transfer that shock the entire football world.

When Valverde’s side then kicked-off his reigns s Barca boss with a humiliating 5-1 Spanish Super Cup defeat against Real Madrid, the only conclusion to be drawn was that the reigning European football were set to dominate their great rivals for some time to come.

That early season hammering could have derailed Barcelona’s season at first base, yet Valverde’s side have silenced their doubters with an unbeaten run in the Spanish title race that has been achieved without the kind of acclaim it has merited.

Make no mistake, the Barca ship was rocking violently amid the chaos that followed Neymar’s extraordinary departure to Paris Saint-German last summer, but Valverde deserves huge credit for steadying deck and finding a winning balance in a talent-laden squad.

Valverde’s calm and measured approach may not capture too many headlines, with his reflections on the events of his first season as Barcelona boss offering a snapshot of a story that has been perfectly managed by this 54-year-old tactician.

“Neymar’s departure from Barcelona was a difficult moment for this club, we cannot deny this,” states Valverde. “We had to accept a situation we did not want to accept and it took time to appreciate what happened.

“We needed to find a way to focus again and in my first few weeks in this job, it was a challenge, but now we are in a good place.

“At the moment, all we have done is put ourselves in a strong position to challenge for trophies. Now we have to finish that job.”

If the Barcelona revival is not complete, it certainly feels as if they are edging ominously close to their magical best once again.

Lionel Messi continues to produce his familiar offerings of magic on a regular basis, while Luis Suarez’s early season slump in form has ended in thrilling fashion with a glut of classy goals since December.

With the dust finally settling on a chaotic year for Barcelona on and off the pitch, the time may be coming for Messi and his co-conspirators to finish this campaign on the most glorious high imaginable.

Barcelona head to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night as firm favourites to hammer a final nail into the coffin of Chelsea boss Antonio Conte in an intriguing Champions League clash, yet Valverde’s words of caution are clearly designed to dilute any over-confidence among his players.

“It’s a tough draw due against a big club, the champions of England,” states he Barca boss. “We knew it was not going to be easy because there was a lot of top sides in the second pot and we have got one of the trickiest.

“Chelsea are a strong, physical team who have a very well defined way of playing, tactically, and they are organised by a coach with a great record.

“Antonio Conte is a coach with an impressive CV; he has won trophies with Chelsea and with Juventus and I get the feeling he is a methodical, tactical coach who is really well organised.

“There has been some speculation about Conte (future) in the last few weeks, but this is a coach that deserves to be respected.”

Curiously, despite talk of deep rooted problems at Barcelona, coach Valverde has spent chunks of his media time ahead of the trip to London to face Chelsea deflecting suggestions that his side could be on course to secure a clean sweep of trophies this season.

It’s hardly the topic you would expect to be discussing amid a debate over a team in decline, with Valverde batting away the subject with disdain.

“We do not talk about winning three trophies in our dressing room,” declares Valverde, who claimed his players were suffering from fatigue as they played out a disappointing 0-0 draw against Getafe at the Nou Camp last weekend.

“First you try to win the Copa del Rey, then the Spanish championship, then the Champions League. You cannot talk about winning a treble before you win a single trophy.”

Valverde’s caution is understandable as aside from three title successes with Olympiacos in Greece, former Barcelona forward Valverde has yet to win a major trophy in his managerial career.

That modest record is certain to be improved in the coming months, with the Barcelona of old threatening to explode once again when it matters most.

Second favourites with the bookies behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to win their fourth Champions League crown in nine years, Barcelona would relish the chance to knock their former boss off his perch in a dream final against England’s champions-elect.

Writing off a Barcelona team with this much talent has proved to be a fool’s game.

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