Between them, Barcelona and Lionel Messi have broken their fair share of records over the past decade. From the all-conquering heights of Pep Guardiola’s side to the staggering goalscoring feats of the Argentinian forward, fans in Spain and the rest of Europe alike have been blessed to witness records tumble in the style that has become synonymous with the Barcelona side.
Real Madrid fans may perceive Barcelona’s success with more envy than appreciation, but in this campaign Real Madrid have not been able to do anything other than witness Barcelona storm away with the league title. Barcelona look set to complete the season as invincibles, a moniker afforded to those clubs that complete a league season without defeat.
While Barcelona have certainly been the incredibles over the past few years, not even the side crafted by Guardiola was able to complete a league campaign as invincibles. In the main European leagues, this honour has only gone to Preston North End and Arsenal in England, and AC Milan and Juventus in Italy. Arsenal’s 2003/04 side stormed to the Premier League in a dominant season with a legacy that may well have kept Arsene Wenger in a job for the subsequent fourteen years without a title.
Juventus have been a domestic powerhouse in Serie A in recent years, but it was in 2011/12 that this supremacy reached its pinnacle in an undefeated league season under the tutelage of Antonio Conte. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Juventus only ended the season four points clear of a Milan side that succumbed to six league defeats, with Juventus’ 23 league wins complemented by 15 draws. Only Catania in 15th could match that number of draws in Serie A.
A dream debut season for Valverde
Managing a club of the stature of Barcelona inevitably comes with intense pressure and scrutiny, but this season has played out like a dream for Ernesto Valverde. The creator of an impressive Athletic Bilbao side, Valverde has made the step up to the Nou Camp with consummate confidence and has guided Barcelona to the top of La Liga. Fans may have been cautious over how Valverde would transition to Barcelona, especially at a time where Barcelona would have to rebuild after the departure of Neymar to PSG. Twitter roundly mocked the club for the signing of Paulinho for €40 million from Guangzhou Evergrande, with the Brazilian midfielder having struggled on his previous foray into European football with Tottenham Hotspur. However, Valverde and Paulinho have banished any doubts over their ability.
Paulinho has been a consistent threat breaking forward from midfield positions, while Valverde is on the verge of an achievement that not even Guardiola could claim. The invincible season continues to elude Guardiola at Manchester City, where the otherwise imperious side floundered uncharacteristically in a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool. Valverde’s task has been aided slightly by a disappointing Real Madrid side that has not fully recovered from a stuttering start to the season, while Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are typically resolute at the back but lacking the firepower to challenge Barcelona.
Domestic success, even in invincible form, is not enough to satiate the appetite of hungry Barcelona fans. Valverde’s fortunes are looking similarly promising on the European front, having dispatched of Chelsea 4-1 on aggregate in the round of sixteen. Roma await, and Barcelona anticipate success. While Bayern Munich’s standard domestic dominance culminated in a recent 6-0 thrashing of Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona’s main threat in the Champions League looks likely to come in the familiar form of Guardiola. A Champions League final contested by the near-invincibles of Manchester City and the possible invincibles of Barcelona would be a fixture of monumental proportions.
Messi cleans up for Barcelona
Barcelona will shirk dreaming of the Champions League final in order to prioritise each match as it comes. While Barcelona can afford multiple domestic defeats and still secure the title, it is the prestige of being invincible that will both enthral the fans and establish an aura of superiority around the side. That prestige was in danger of being lost in a recent league match against Sevilla, but the rescue came from a man for who brilliance has become normality.
Two goals down after fifty minutes, it looked like Barcelona would suffer a defeat inconsequential in terms of the title race but devastating in its denial of invincibility. Lionel Messi had been struggling with a hamstring problem which is why the forward began the match by occupying an unfamiliar spot on the bench, but he replaced Ousmane Dembele in the 58th minute and began to work his magic. Luis Suarez gave Barcelona hope with two minutes of normal time remaining, before Messi curled home a sumptuous equaliser from outside of the box. On the same day as former Barcelona striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic marking his LA Galaxy debut with a late winner, Messi reinforced the notion that it is not just the quantity of goals by which a player is judged but their significance.
Messi will be quick to acknowledge that if Barcelona complete their league season without defeat, it will be the fruits of hard work and performance throughout the team. The likes of Samuel Umtiti, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Sergi Roberto have proved their worth alongside players in Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta who have already won it all. What the experienced players have yet to achieve is to earn the tag of invincibility that is growing tantalisingly closer. To come so close and to fail would be disheartening, although it would ultimately not detract from what will be a season of success. So often imperious over the past decade, Valverde looks set to guide Barcelona into an era of invincibility.