Part of every championship run is looking into some of the numbers that defined the season. It’s the same for Barcelona, getting yet another vintage Lionel Messi goal to secure yet another La Liga title in the club’s golden age, which has been going on for quite some time.
The obvious number. Barcelona are champions for a 23time, which puts them nine behind Real Madrid. Getting this close would seem impossible before Johan Cruyff took over as manager. But since 1991, Barcelona have won the title 13 times; Real Madrid just seven times. Slowly but steadily, Barcelona are catching up, even when it comes to numbers. It’s Barcelona’s fifth La Liga title in seven seasons.
Yes, Messi is still the main man, but Barcelona have a scary three-headed monster up front. It took Luis Suarez a couple of months to get his bearings, but he has scored 16 times in the league. Neymar rebounded from a rough first season with 22 goals, many of them crucial and clutch, borrowing a term from American sports. Messi? He’s back in top form, scoring 41 league goals. It might not win him the Pichichi, but combined with his ability that goes beyond the goals, it’s more than enough to secure his place on top of the sport’s pecking order.
Yes, Barcelona have their trio of forwards and an impressive number of goals, but maybe the real reason that they’re back on top of Spain and possibly Europe is the defense. Not just the defensive players, but defending in general. Less tiki-taka, more direct football, more speed, and a lot more pressing. It begins with Ivan Rakitic who seems to cover an enormous amount of space every match, showing how old Xavi has gotten. It’s Dani Alves and Gerard Pique playing like it’s 2011 again. It’s Javier Mascherano who blends the defensive midfielder-centre back qualities he excels in. Jordi Alba who is a lot more responsible than before. It’s Claudio Bravo and even Ter Stegen at goal. It’s Jeremy Mathieu, despite his age and the exaggerated price. It’s the pressure up front, especially from Suarez, which turns out to be contagious, even to Neymar and Messi. Barcelona kept a clean sheet 23 times this season, including in eight of the final nine league matches.
Not winning two matches in a row is a crisis in Spain, at least for Barcelona and Real Madrid, with every dropped point meaning so much in their title races over the last few years. Barcelona lost 3-1 in the first Clasico, followed by dropping three points at home to Celta Vigo. All is lost? It doesn’t work like that. Each team has its crisis. Barcelona had one, and a very short one. After that Celta Vigo loss, they picked up 71 of 81 possible points, winning 23 matches, drawing twice and losing twice over that period. Not perfect, but as close as possible to it.
Luis Enrique is a rookie manager, at least in Barcelona. Everything he’s done in Roma and Celta Vigo means nothing, or meant nothing once he stepped on the Camp Nou pitch, this time as a manager and not a player. And just like Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, he’s doing remarkably well for someone who should be struggling a bit more. There were the Messi crisis rumors all season long. But Barcelona prevailed, and so did Enrique, even if the media is giving his players most of the credit.
In the never ending fictional battle between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the titles each superstar leads his team to matter more than anything. Both play on stacked teams, for two of the biggest clubs in the world. They’re supposed to be the difference makers. They so often are. And while players shouldn’t be judged by the number of titles they win in a team sport, that’s the way player comparisons work. Right now, Messi is kicking Ronaldo’s butt, at least since the Portuguese star landed in Spain back in 2009.