Only European glory for Barcelona will be enough to silence Valverde’s critics

Ernesto Valverde arrived at the Camp Nou almost two years ago tasked first with steadying a Barcelona ship that was drifting toward the end of Luis Enrique’s tenure – before resetting course back not only to the top of the Spanish football, but also to the pinnacle of the European game.

The Blaugrana he inherited had failed to go beyond the quarter finals of the Champions League for the second season in a row, had seen Real Madrid take their La Liga title (and win another Champions League to boot) and only had the Copa del Rey to console themselves with.

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Since then, the former Athletic Bilbao manager has achieved those objectives, efficiently and effectively, with regard to domestic affairs.

A league and cup double was achieved in his first season, and with a second La Liga title wrapped up on Saturday evening with victory over Levante, another double is very much a possibility in his second.

But despite the league success and the consistency with which his side have produced results (winning 53 La Liga games out 73 and losing only three across his time in charge, while maintaining Barca’s hold on the Spanish Cup) to become a Barcelona great and end the doubts of his detractors, Valverde needs to win the Champions League.

For many, the 55-year-old’s domestic achievements have something of a shadow over them – the result of last season’s second leg collapse against Roma in the last eight of UEFA’s blue ribband event.

Barca arrived in the Eternal City armed with a 4-1 first leg lead. The Catalans were flattered by the score line, but it was difficult to see Roma turning things around.

But the manner in which Barcelona were out thought, out fought and out run on the night cast a pall over last season and this.

Valverde was roundly criticised for the display – his detractors suggesting he’d failed to rotate his key players effectively over the season, leading to the leaden footed display in the Stadio Olimpico.

There was some validity in the criticism, but the fact Valverde’s squad lacked the depth and quality required to fight on domestic and foreign soil effectively was overlooked by many in the initial fallout.

On Wednesday, Messi and co meet Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the first leg of this year’s semi-finals. Valverde can at least feel some satisfaction that his side have broken the quarter final barrier that had thwarted Barca in recent seasons.

And he’ll surely be happier with the greater resources now at his disposal.

Barcelona have powered their way unbeaten to the last four, comfortably qualifying from a tough group that included Spurs and Inter Milan, demolishing a Lyon side in the last 16 that had taken four points of Manchester City in the group stages before squashing Manchester United’s limp resistance in the last round.

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And while the expensive summer signing of Brazilian midfielder Malcom from Bordeaux hasn’t paid dividends thus far, other additions have made an impact, bringing quality and competition to the squad.

Clement Lenglet, a summer signing from Sevilla, has taken advantage of compatriot Samuel Umtiti’s fitness problems to become a convincing partner for the imperious Gerard Pique in central defence.

In midfield, Arturo Vidal has brought grit and knowhow and while the young Brazilian Arthur Melo has grown increasingly influential with his ability to recycle and set a tempo.

In attack, its fair to say that Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, brought to the club at huge expense in previous windows, have struggled to find consistent form – but we know both possess match winning quality.

Their relative failings, however, have been more than balanced by the continuing brilliance of Lionel Messi (44 goals across La Liga and the Champions League) and consistency of Luis Suarez.

Overall, Valverde’s side look less brittle and play in a more measured fashion that looks better suited to the demands placed on them, even if the steadiness and stability isn’t to every fan’s liking.

That said, on Wednesday, their progress from a European perspective will be comprehensively tested by a Liverpool side with similar designs on glory.

The Reds present a formidable obstacle – but should Barcelona negotiate the ties successfully, then Valverde will be on the cusp of Blaugrana greatness, as his side will be well fancied to dispose of Spurs or Ajax in the Madrid decider.

The Author

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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