There was a sense of weakness when Valverde took over but successive La Liga titles have made Barça look untouchable
Not long after their 2-0 victory in Vitoria late on Tuesday, with Barcelona four weeks from the finish and three points from the title, Ernesto Valverde was asked if he would like to win the league the following evening or the following Saturday. “What I like,” he said, “is that I get asked that question.”
It was done, again. And it was done early, again. Barcelona had beaten Real Madrid, beaten Atlético Madrid and beaten everyone else except Athletic Club and Valencia. Now they had beaten Alavés too, affording them the luxury of choice: they could take the title with a win over Levante three days later or they could be handed it with an Atlético defeat against Valencia the next day, watching it on TV – and no one wanted that. They didn’t want to be handed it in the car on the way to work three days after that, either. “I’d rather win it at home with our fans,” Sergio Busquets said, speaking for everyone.
The next morning, having boarded a plane at 1am, climbed into bed at 3am and climbed back out again a few hours later, all the players rolling in for training at San Joan Despí wanted their nearest challengers to win. “Or at least get a draw,” Luis Suárez said. Which they did: on Thursday Atlético defeated Valencia 3-2, on Saturday afternoon they beat Valladolid 1-0, setting everything up, and on Saturday Barcelona beat Levante 1-0 to become league champions – and the only remarkable thing about it was that they marked the occasion by actually getting the trophy. Even getting it in the same season is something, but there was Lionel Messi, lifting it into the April air.
April. At the end of the weekend on which the title race officially ended the way everyone had long known it would, Barcelona stood nine points ahead of Atlético, 18 ahead of Madrid. Over the last two seasons, their aggregate lead over their closest challengers – if those are the right words – stands at 23 and 35 points respectively. It was Messi’s first league title as captain. For Arturo Vidal it was his eighth in a row, but that’s another story. Gerard Piqué and Busquets were celebrating again: this is Barcelona’s eighth in 11 years and they have been there for all of them. Add seven Copa del Rey titles, with another final to come, and it’s a decade of domestic dominance never matched.
As they went around the Camp Nou doing a lap of honour, they wore T-shirts, made for the occasion. “Eight of 11,” they read, “the extraordinary thing is that it seems normal.” Valverde wore one too and it could have been written about him.
There was something almost comfortingly predictable about Barcelona winning the league with Messi coming on from the bench to score the winning goal, his 34th of the season, one for every match, one for every major trophy he has won. There was something fitting too: this was his league, so, so far ahead of the rest, so much better than anyone anywhere, again. Barcelona have won 26 leagues in their entire history; Messi has won 10 of them. Only Paco Gento has won more. AS’s cover called it the décima: the 10th; Marca went for “the 10th for the number 10.” “This league is Messi’s”, said the cover of Sport. Asked how much Messi had to do with Barcelona’s hegemony, Valverde smiled and joked: “Not much.” He added: “There’s always one man above everyone else and that’s Messi.”
That’s somewhere Valverde would never place himself. But this success is his too. There was something in the success that fit him, that is about him, the normality abnormal.
“It’s a great victory to turn the title into something predictable,” he said a week ago; the first thing he said as a league champion was was “joder”: it translates as the f-word but is more like bloody hell and it was an exhalation that greeted the final whistle, relief: it is done. A few metres away, the last person to touch the ball in Barcelona’s bid to win the league was Messi but this was no goal, no dribble, no impossible pass. Instead, it was him running across to make a tackle, booting the ball off the pitch. A minute before, Ennis Barhdi had hit a post. Amidst the calculations, no one had contemplated the possibility that Barcelona might not win the league this weekend, but Levante had been close to making it so.
“There had been nerves,” Valverde admitted. Yet on some level, it was better this way. It had shown how difficult it is to win the league, Suárez said. The fact that he had to say this was telling. They had made it look too easy, top every week but four. Afterwards, Valverde was swift to recall the bad times: they had gone four games without a win between week five and eight and were hammered by Betis. They had needed two injury time goals to draw 4-4 with Villarreal.
By the end, though, they hadn’t been beaten since November. They have only been beaten twice this season. They were only beaten once last season: 5-4 at Levante with the title already won and with the directors imposing a game in South Africa upon them days later. A friendly – a friendly – that meant they rested Messi. In two years, Valverde’s Barcelona have effectively lost only one meaningful game – the defeat in Rome. A solitary defeat sufficient enough and painful enough to eclipse all else. Last year, they won the double; sometimes, it did not feel like it was enough. On the morning of the cup final, Valverde awoke to the news – in the papers closest to the president – that the board would reconsider his future if they didn’t beat Sevilla.
It’s forgotten that Valverde took over a team that was about to lose Neymar, the sense of weakness and vulnerability overwhelming. Beaten 5-1 by Real Madrid in the Super Cup in August 2017, Piqué sat on the Bernabéu bench muttering “this lot are giving us the run around”; afterwards he said, “for the first time I feel inferior to Madrid.” Two years on, they could hardly be more superior. Thirty-five points. It is that very superiority that normalises it, removing the drama, the uncertainty. The achievement.
“Maybe a title on the last day is more exciting,” Valverde sad, “but this is the title that coaches appreciate, the one where you have to hammer away from August to May.” Ask the man he competes with. If there is one person who has done more than anyone else to back that, to insist on the significance of the title, to highlight Valverde’s success, it is Zinedine Zidane. Champions League winner three years running, the title that gave him the most satisfaction was the league and the one he has made a public priority next season. Not just once, but repeatedly, a message that is counter-cultural at Madrid – and one that brings value to Valverde’s success.
There was music. There were fireworks and families, kids on the pitch. They danced a Sardana, or sort of. “Campeones,” the fans sang, but not until it was done. Supporters headed down the Ramblas, flags in hand. There will be no open-top bus, not unless more follows. Barcelona wanted to win the title in time for Liverpool and it is the Champions League that will ultimately, if a little unfairly, define the season. The league matters; it is also the first step towards something that matters more. As they celebrated, the club’s president was already asking for more: “the objective is the treble,” he said.
“I’ve already had a beer,” Ivan Rakitic admitted. “And we’ll have a few more. But then we’ll get up tomorrow – with a headache – and go back to work.” The players were on their way out, heading to Shakira’s restaurant, taking the trophy with them. As for Valverde, he was asked what he planned to do on Saturday night, the night he quietly won his second league title in a row. “I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it,” he said, “so if you’ve got any ideas …”
• “I dreamed that I would never beat Madrid in my life, now I can die happy,” Paco Jémez said, but he hasn’t lost hope of living happier. For the first time in his career, a team of his have beaten Real Madrid and doing so might, just, have given Rayo Vallecano the tiniest hint of survival hope. Seventeen years it had taken, then were without their best player by miles – R.D.T, responsible for 39% of their goals, is on loan from Madrid and wasn’t allowed to play – and they were basically down, bottom at kick-off, but somehow Rayo won at Vallecas. Perhaps in part because they had to. “One thing we beat Madrid on for sure is need,” Jémez had said; as it turned out they beat Madrid on everything else too.
“We did everything badly,” Zidane said. “We did nothing today, nothing. From the first minute to the last, at all levels. We have to be very, very angry. I’m angry. Our image was …” There was silence for a moment, and then he added: “… bad. We can’t play like this. We have to apologise for how we played. We have to play three more games, to respect football and to respect this club.” Which they’re not really doing right now.
• Marc Muniesa’s tears told the story of what it meant. Six months later, Girona finally win at home, lifting themselves out of the relegation zone with a 1-0 win over Sevilla, Montilivi going mad and the team going on to 37 points. It’s going to be some fight to the end.
• First it was Valencia, then it was Sevilla, and then it was Getafe. All three could have moved into a Champions League place – and all three lost, one after the other.