If there was any doubt that Saturday’s 4-0 destruction of Real Madrid in the season’s first El Clasico was a fluke, Barcelona put that to bed with a 6-1 demolition of Roma in the Champions League on Tuesday. Lionel Messi seems to have found his feet again, and had a greater influence on the game, scoring twice and assisting Gerard Pique’s goal.
Luis Suarez netted a brace of his own, with even Adriano getting in on the action for the sixth goal. All in all, it was just another day at the office for a team that’s once again made beating the top teams in Europe’s top leagues look easy.
It’s difficult at this point to see anyone stopping Barça in La Liga. On the basis of Saturday’s showing, Real Madrid are nowhere near the same class right now. Barring an unexpected upset, or an unfortunate early run-in with Bayern Munich, the path to a consecutive Champions League final also looks pretty clear for Luis Enrique’s men.
This is all a far cry from just 12 months ago, when there were questions hanging over the manager and his and Messi’s ability to see eye-to-eye. Three trophies and a half-season later, Enrique is on course to being remembered as one of Barça’s greatest managers ever.
Certainly the team is in the best form we’ve seen since the heyday of the Pep Guardiola years from 2009 to 2011. And while Enrique might not be the natural media darling that his former Barça teammate is, he is currently in a good position to equal or even surpass Guardiola’s achievements.
Like Guardiola, Enrique inherited a winning team that had become rather less winning over a couple of seasons. Following the unfortunate illness and passing of Tito Villanova, Barça found themselves under a caretaker manager before the ill-fated appointment of Tata Martino.
While the Argentine manager may have been Messi’s pick, he never seemed at ease with his role at the club and didn’t succeed in getting the best from his players. His one season in charge, 2013-14, was the first time since 2007-08 –- the season before Guardiola took charge -– that Barça failed to win a major trophy.
To be sure, Enrique inherited a strong team. But it was also a team in transition. Stalwarts of those Pep glory years -– Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdez to name a few – were on their last legs at the club. Not to mention the transfer ban that’s been in effect during Enrique’s entire tenure with the Blaugrana.
Then there was the Suarez situation. Although the Uruguayan signed with Barcelona right before the ban was put in effect, he was under his own ban for four months after the biting incident at the World Cup.
Even this season, there were serious concerns about this Barça team’s depth: Injuries to key players like Dani Alvez, Jordi Alba, Pique, Andre Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Javier Mascherano, Thomas Vermaelan, and of course Messi could have derailed Barça’s momentum. Not to mention rather shocking losses to Sevilla and Celta Vigo, which happens to be Enrique’s former team.
Throughout it all, this Barcelona team has persevered and is now firmly restored to what seems its rightful place in the very top echelon of Spanish and European football. Certainly this is an easier ask when you have players of the caliber of Suarez, Messi, Neymar and Iniesta.
But Enrique must be given due credit. He came into the club in a difficult time. He showed the courage to bench Messi when he wasn’t playing that well and seems to have helped coax the Argentine magician out of the funk he suffered in 2014. He got Barça’s stars back in alignment and even found ways to bring floundering once-defenders like Pique and Alvez back into line.
With Barcelona still alive in all three major competitions -– La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey -– he could be on track for a second treble in a row, and possibly, to becoming the greatest manager in the club’s history.
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