The knives were out for Ernesto Valverde last week after Barcelona’s Champions League capitulation in Rome. It was as if the former Athletic Bilbao manager, in his first season in charge at the Camp Nou, was almost single-handedly responsible for a decline in the club’s fortunes that was in fact well in evidence before his arrival. This was, after all, Barca’s third quarter final exit in a row.
The shock at their 3-0 defeat at the hands of Roma suggests that a great many people have been watching Barca’s results closer than they’ve been watching their performances. This result had been coming.
Indeed, the feeling that they could be exposed had been growing in recent weeks. A fortnight ago, Sevilla were two minutes away from inflicting Barca’s first league defeat of the season.
Time and time again, Los Rojiblancos carved up Valverde’s men and should have been more than two goals ahead before the late Messi inspired comeback.
And against Roma in the first leg of their Champions League quarter final, Barca were flattered by the 4-1 score line. Edin Dzeko’s late strike had looked little more than a consolation – but it ultimately decided the tie. But Roma could and should have had more at the Camp Nou.
Barca have been yielding more and more chances the longer the season has gone on – punishment had to be round the corner.
In Valverde’s defence, it’s worth remembering that the side he inherited in the summer was already in clear need of an overhaul and hadn’t been competitive at the sharp end in Europe for a couple of seasons.
Last term, the Blaugrana had been unable to prevent rivals Real Madrid from stealing the league title and could only watch on, after a disappointing 3-0 aggregate quarter final defeat to Juventus, as Zidane’s men were crowned kings of Europe.
That last eight exit came not long after their epic ousting of PSG in the round of 16. Their incredible second leg recovery ultimately only papering over the cracks so evident in their 4-0 defeat in Paris and said as much about PSG’s lack of fortitude as it did about Barca’s sporadic brilliance. Those cracks, however, were ruthlessly exploited by the Italian champions, just as they were by Roma last week.
Valverde’s job on his arrival at the club was to steady the ship. Domestically, with the league title all but secured and the Copa final against Sevilla set for next weekend, he has done that and more.
He has made them much harder to score against – last season, Barca shipped 37 goals in their 38 league fixtures, this season they’ve conceded only 17 in 32 games. And while his focus on defensive shape and stability has had an impact of their goal return – they scored an average of three goals a game last season, down to 2.5 this term – that hasn’t stopped them from gaining an apparently unassailable La Liga lead.
And Valverde has managed this in a season that initially looked like being all about necessary transition and after suffering the late debilitating defection of Neymar. It appeared that expectations had been set relatively low as a consequence. But as the season developed and their grip on the title grew, so too did expectations. Perhaps unreasonably so.
However, the 54-year-old hasn’t helped himself at times and is culpable for overplaying key players to the extent that they looked positively lifeless in Rome. The fact that many of those in reserve were not his choice is a mitigating factor.
However, he could have narrowed his priorities this term – allowing the second string live or die in the Copa, for example, rather than flogging his stars in the domestic cup.
But reclaiming the league title is a decent return for Valverde, and there are other reasons to be cheerful. First, the need to refresh the squad and bring in new, star talent has clearly been recognised. Hence the arrival of the likes of Dembele and Coutinho.
Secondly, other recent acquisitions like Umtiti and Semedo have shown that they have a big future at the club. And thirdly, Barca are ahead of Real Madrid in terms of their transitionary phase. Los Merengues are also sorely in need of a revamp – their run to the Champions League semi-finals, which they reached by the skin of Ronaldo’s world class teeth, hasn’t obscured their own growing frailties.