Back at the start of the year, FC Barcelona were a club “in crisis”. At the time, they were already into the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League and just one point behind arch-rivals Real Madrid in the La Liga title race, yet the Spanish newspapers were awash with stories of a club in total turmoil.
Just five months later, the Catalans had completed their second “triplete” – having lifted the Copa del Rey and La Liga in Spain and being crowned champions of Europe following their 3-1 victory over Juventus in Berlin. Betfair betting shows that the Blaugrana are already installed as firm favourites to become the first side since the Champions League format was introduced to successfully defend their title.
In a world where celebrity rules, the year-on-year battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – once merely a sideshow – has taken on such an importance that the players have become almost monolithic emblems of their clubs. So much so, that when rumours surfaced of tension existing between Barca manager Luis Enrique his players – or, more succinctly, his star player – it appeared that there would only be one winner.
The turnaround appears to have had its roots in the hoodoo-breaking victories over Atletico Madrid in mid-January, yet even as recently as March, when Barcelona travelled to the Etihad Stadium to face Manchester City, all did not appear to be well.
Messi had delivered a virtuoso performance in the first half and the visitors left Manchester with a 2-1 win. However, my own experience when watching the players leave the packed mixed zone after the match was of witnessing a group of players who could not wait to go home. Messi himself raced out towards the team bus with his hood pulled tight around his face, staring hard at the ground in front of him.
The shadow of Pep Guardiola threatened to completely obscure the job that Luis Enrique was trying to do. Not only did he have to contend with the incredible weight of recent history bearing down on him but he was also working with many of the very same players who were part of that story. He had to impose himself and his ideas on a squad of players who formed the nucleus of one of the greatest club sides in living memory.
Despite the rumours and the “total crisis” that engulfed the club in January, Luis Enrique remained. He did witness some high-profile back-room allies depart in the shape of Andoni Zubizarreta and Carles Puyol, but he weathered the media storm. His team regrouped and their confidence grew, resulting in Barcelona’s glorious “triplete” – another treble. FC Barcelona’s patience paid off. In some style.
Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning side rightly received the highest acclaim from football purists the world over. They swept aside almost all comers, but fell just short of successfully defending their UCL titles of 2009 and 2011. With the three-pronged attack of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez mixing up their style a little more, who’s to say that this incarnation won’t go on to do just that?