What’s at stake for Barcelona in the Champions League final against Juve
By Leander Schaerlaeckens
Yahoo Sport – May 6, 2015
Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) celebrates his goal with Dani Alves during the Spanish Copa del Rey (King's Cup) final football match Athletic Club Bilbao vs FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on May 30, 2015
Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) celebrates his goal with Dani Alves during the Spanish Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) final football match Athletic Club Bilbao vs FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on May 30, 2015 (AFP Photo/Josep Lago)
Here’s an extraordinary possibility to chew on: It just might be that this strange and winding season will be Barcelona’s best ever.
You’ll recall that just a few months ago, Barca was in a five-alarm crisis. On December 30, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected the club’s appeal to its two-transfer window ban from signing new players, a punishment for its illegal recruitment of underage prospects. On January 4, Barcelona lost 1-0 away to Real Sociedad on a Jordi Alba own goal. That meant Barca had failed to win an intolerable five times already, in just 17 games, and rival Real Madrid would soon extend its league lead to four points.
The next day, Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona’s director of football, was fired. His assistant, recently retired club icon Carles Puyol, quit in protest. President Josep Maria Bartomeu, who had fallen into the job when his predecessor Sandro Rossell resigned in the scandal over Neymar’s misrepresented transfer fee, announced accelerated presidential elections for this summer.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi was supposed to be feuding with first-year manager Luis Enrique, who apparently refused to coddle his Argentine superstar. Messi skipped an open practice, claiming gastric distress – which captain Xavi had said just a few days prior is a soccer player’s classic false excuse – and the manager’s job seemed to be in real peril.
But Barcelona put its house back in order and would lose just two more games the rest of the way. The Catalans went on to win La Liga for a fifth time in seven seasons without much difficulty. They concluded their romp to the Copa del Rey trophy last Saturday with a comprehensive 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao. This Saturday, they could complete just the second treble in their club’s history – and all of Spanish soccer’s history – if they vanquish Juventus in the UEFA Champions League final in Berlin.
A season that appeared to be careening out of control and threatened to tumble into some deep and terrible abyss – by Barca’s towering standards, of course – now suddenly measures up quite well to the club’s very best. In fact, it isn’t terribly hard to make the argument that, statistically at least, it’s Barcelona’s best ever.
The golden standard for Barca is the 2008-09 season, Pep Guardiola’s first in charge of the club, when it won that other treble lifting the Supercopa de España, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup before the calendar year was out.
That season, Barcelona won the league by a 27-5-6 (W-L-T) record – they won just one of their last six games, actually – for 87 points with 105 goals scored and 35 conceded. This year, it went 30-4-4, garnering 94 points while scoring 110 goals and giving up just 21.
Back in 2009, the Blaugranas tied just two of their nine Copa del Rey games and claimed victories in all the rest. Not bad, you might say, considering the 17-6 goal margin. But this season, they won all nine games with a 34-6 scoring record.
And six years ago, in the Champions League, Barca had to go through the third qualification round, wherein it dropped the second leg to Wisla Krakow 1-0 after winning the first game 4-0. Then, in the group stage, it went 4-1-1. Barcelona actually then won just two of its six games in the round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals, garnering four ties – it beat Chelsea on away goals with 0-0 and 1-1 ties in the latter round. Then, at length, it beat Manchester United 2-0 in the final.
This year, Barca won five of six group stage games and five of six knockout round games, only losing to Paris Saint-Germain 3-2 away in their second game and Bayern Munich 3-2 away in the semis – it didn’t much matter, though, as Barcelona smashed Bayern 3-0 in the first leg.
So overall, this year’s record stands at 49-6-4 with a game to spare. In 2008-09, it was 42-7-13. The overall goal differences? 172-37 to 158-55. Barca was 32 goals better this season.
Both seasons, undertaken with new and inexperienced coaches in charge, were supposed to be the end of a dynasty that still carries on somehow. Those half dozen years ago, Barcelona had just shunted off Deco and Ronaldinho, who had become too much of a distraction off the field. The club decided, instead, to double down on mega prospect Messi, who had yet to score more than 17 times in a season. This year, it was assumed that even though Barca had managed to add Luis Suarez to its elite attacking tandem of Messi and Neymar, to form a trident, the magic was running out.
That is to say, of course, if Barcelona manages to beat Juve on Saturday. And that won’t be so easy. The Italian Serie A was said to have withered, as the unscrupulous economics of the modern game left it far behind. But the Old Lady, so nicknamed, has stood as a defiant testament that Italian soccer still matters.
Juventus upset Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16 and Real Madrid in the semifinals. The Serie A champions are savvy and shrewd, leveraging a finely honed defense in the service of an opportunistic attack with some of the world’s best midfielders – Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo – running between them. They will have to contain the trident, of course, and do so without key defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. But they are still awash in experience.
Fatigue, meanwhile, could be a factor for Barca, which is about to play its 60th competitive game of yet another season. It is not a very deep team, and Suarez and Andres Iniesta have been hobbling with hamstring and calf injuries, respectively.
All the same, Barcelona is the overwhelming favorite, improbably playing to establish itself as the club’s most accomplished team of all time.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.