Barcelona’s ruthless domination of La Liga truly began in 1991-92. And unless a series of remarkable events are in store for us over the next few months then that three-decade reign looks about to stumble to an inglorious and inept end. One of football’s greatest ever empires is in a critical condition and arguably the sport’s greatest ever player, Lionel Messi, is in danger of being trapped in the rubble as things crumble.
In June 1992, Barca won consecutive titles for the first time in 22 years and embarked on a run which meant that from then on they have won (14) nearly twice as many league crowns as Real Madrid (8). That groundbreaking Spanish championship came despite Los Blancos leading from mid-October until they were 2-0 up at Tenerife on the final day … only to disastrously ship three straight goals, lose and gaze in horror as Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” evolved into a hegemony.
Given that there are so many matches left in what has been a wonderful, incident-studded and consistently thrilling re-start to La Liga this season it wouldn’t be quite as dramatic if Zinedine Zidane and Madrid don’t get over the line in 2020. But nearly. Should they win their derbi at home to Getafe on Thursday, Spain’s champions-elect would go four points clear at the top. They’d also have the head-to-head advantage over Barcelona up their sleeve in case the sides happened to finish tied on points at the end of the season.
The plain facts are these: Real Madrid have the best squad in Spain, the best XI, have produced some lovely football and would be deserving champions. It’s just as stark that, by Barcelona’s own lofty standards, the Catalan club are in an ungainly, self-inflicted mess in both football and institutional terms.
The remaining fixtures slightly favour the reigning champs, though Los Blancos are guaranteed to win the title if they win four and draw two of their remaining six matches — irrespective of what Quique Setien’s side manage. Barcelona face Villarreal away, the Catalan derby at home, Valladolid away, then Osasuna at Camp Nou and Alaves up in the Basque country. Meanwhile, after Getafe, Real Madrid must play Athletic at San Mames, Alaves at home, Granada in Andalucia, Villarreal at home and finish at Leganes.
Perceived difficulty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But it’s worth understanding that Barcelona have taken just six out of the possible last 12 points — twice surrendering leads (to Celta and Atletico.) Not title winning form.
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Over at the Alfredo Di Stefano training ground, where Madrid now work and play while the Santiago Bernabeu is under re-construction, there is health and wealth. Thanks partly to new fitness coach Gregory Dupont, Madrid are sharper, more athletic, and blessed with better sporting stamina than their principal rivals.
Liverpool — all fire, brimstone, muscle, bristling sporting aggression, gigantic lungs and pumping quad muscles — they are not. Yet Madrid not only possess a superior fitness guru to Barcelona, they have more footballers who understand the fact that the fitter you are, the more you can impose your technique and talent.
Unlike in much of England’s Premier League, power, stamina and acceleration aren’t substitutes for wit, intelligence, strategy and brilliant techniques — they are happy bedfellows. Zidane’s squad, in one way, is bloated. The Frenchman didn’t want, and didn’t need, all of the 26 top class footballers he’s used in La Liga so far. But sometimes you get lucky. The re-start policy change to allow a bigger squad, bigger bench and up to five subs has been like being tapped on the shoulder by your fairy godmother’s wand. Never mind “I’ll give you three wishes” … “Give me five subs!”
Two weeks ago, Marco Asensio came off the bench against Valencia to win the match — that was high impact — but the key thing is that the 19 changes Zidane has made in five matches has helped avoid injuries, fight exhaustion and allow Madrid to either clinch, or see out, the kind of narrow victories which have been beyond their wilting Camp Nou rivals.
Market conditions allowing, some of those in the squad of Spain’s champions-elect will be offloaded in the short close-season. But for the meantime, Gareth Bale aside, Zidane has a fit, happy, confident, “involved” and ultra-competitive squad.
Barcelona, by comparison, look like a bank heist movie — one where the audience watch the job slowly fall apart while the participants seal their own destiny without a hint of self-awareness about how their egos, in-fighting and desperate need for leadership is going to set the alarms off.
For the job of burgling their 15th title in the 28 years since the 1992 side, Barca had assembled what looked like a capable, hard-bitten crew. Rival clubs had courted both new additions: a World Cup winning striker (Antoine Griezmann) and a Dutch tyro Champions League semifinalist who’d helped humble Real Madrid and Juventus the previous season (Frenkie de Jong). But as the season has progressed, the cracks have appeared, widened into fissures and now resemble the San Andreas fault line.
On the playing front, just like that disintegrating bank heist, there are strong characters aplenty, most of whom have seen it all before but think they know best. Schisms and cliques have formed; the squad divides into “those and such as those.”
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As for those “in charge” … who’s actually in charge? Is it the board, who sacked Ernesto Valverde mid-season? A man who, even if stained by European pratfalls, had established equilibrium between the demands of winning domestically and maintaining a healthy, collaborative relationship with the tungsten-tough training ground nucleus of Messi, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets?
A board which spent the last few weeks scrambling about trying to clear debt by selling playing assets so that they wouldn’t be penalised financially for debt at the end of the accounting period? Did they have their eye on the ball? No. It was on the bottom line. How did they manage to get into a situation where the massive debt of renewing the contracts of certain players in this squad, plus roundly failing with the €400m (all-in) outlay on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Griezmann, left Barcelona under extraordinary financial pressure?
Is it Setien and his rumbustious young ward, Eder Sarabia, in charge? To cynics like Alba, Messi and Suarez they are “That Man and Boy Blunder.” Would you be surprised if I told you that during one of the lockdown Zoom meetings, several players turned up late and one made it clear that his time was precious and he had other things to be getting on with?
So, here’s the rub. The title remains up for grabs. I have tipped Madrid from the beginning of the season, still think they are the best team and that they will muscle their way to what will be a significant title victory. But there’s room for slippage and perhaps Barcelona bounce back off the ropes. I doubt it, but who knows.
Nevertheless, for anyone except hardline Barcelona and Real Madrid fans there’s something else happening here. The ideology which has more or less dominated Barca, its training grounds, scouting, academy, brand of football and which was the single most important reason that “diminutive” players like Pep Guardiola, Chapi Ferrer, Eusebio, Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta, Alba, Xavi and Messi were chosen, flourished and became global symbols of football being played at its most daring and beautiful … well that ideology is nearly in ruins.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Madridista then your team conquering Spain and rubbing Catalan noses in it is heaven. But for everyone else, what’s at stake here is watching an idea, a dream, a thing of beauty being sometimes deliberately corroded, sometimes ignored, while all it needed was a little bit of love and attention.
The Rinus Michels-Cruyff-Guardiola philosophy is teetering and threatens to fall. This board will grit its teeth, apply its glitzy PR to a supine media and cling on for the final year of its mandate. And the care applied to a playing, training, scouting, recruiting ethic, one which has utterly transformed Barcelona from also-rans to race leaders, will decrease.
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For neutrals, the worst thing is that this is all happening during Messi’s final golden years. His 33rd birthday, last week, must have been bittersweet. Ahead of him lay that sublime Panenka penalty via which he scored his 700th senior goal for Barcelona and Argentina on Tuesday. And he’s going to finish the season as La Liga’s best, most valuable player again. But his frustration, anger and increasing disenchantment simply shimmers in the night air every time he plays right now. His form oscillates from blinding sunshine to grey clouds — sometimes several times within the same match — and he mixes brilliant choices and technique with poor, self-indulgent decisions and moments of over-elaboration.
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However what’s visible to anyone who cares to watch is his bristling, boiling-under-the-surface resentment and fury. He knows he’s approaching the end of his playing life. He could easily delight us until his late 30s, but these next 24 months will represent Messi’s final opportunities to be the leading player in a great team.
Set against that is the evidence that Barcelona don’t have the wit, will, direction or financial resources to solve their decline quickly. Just when he needs his club to be lean, smart, organised, hungry and on the same wavelength, they are degenerating into division, incompetence, debt and tone-deaf ego.
Over the last few games Messi has, time and again, teetered on the brink of losing his temper and getting sent off because opponents have sensed that his legendary self-control (two red cards in his life and each extremely dubious in merit) is ebbing away. This title AND his golden legacy years are drifting out of reach. And it’s like a ton of salt being rubbed in a red-raw wound.
Whether Madrid win the title, whether or not Setien is replaced by Ronald Koeman or someone else, whether Barcelona somehow manage to stumble through the winner’s tape this season … these aren’t really the fundamental points. It is that the wilful negligence via which established, successful, beautiful football principles are being shredded — leaving Messi a helpless general surveying his empire in ruins — will be judged harshly and unforgivingly by history.