Football Features

La Decima for Leo Messi: Five things learned as Barcelona retain La Liga crown

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:26, 27 April 2019

In a bizarre but fun night of football, Barcelona beat Levante 1-0 to win La Liga.

The win put them nine points clear of Atlético Madrid wit just nine points left to play for, and given Barça hold the head-to-head tiebreak advantage over Atleti, La Liga is theirs yet again and the club retains the title for the first time since 2016. What did we learn?

1. Messi is Barcelona’s Atlas

In Greek Mythology, Atlas is a titan tasked with holding the sky above the earth. Carrying the majesty of the night sky for all eternity was intended a punishment but has instead etched Atlas’ name into history for all eternity as a noble deity who held the sky up.

Leo Messi is a world-class footballer who, like Atlas, has to hold Barcelona up all by himself. This could be seen as a punishment, “why won’t Messi just leave and go to a different club?” Some may ask, but the sheer amount of effort required to lift Barcelona allows Messi to show the full extent of his supernatural powers. He gets to strut, basically. And boy, has he ever strutted. This was his 10th Liga title, making him the all-time record winner for Barcelona and put him just two titles behind the overall La Liga holder: Real Madrid’s Paco Gento. That is utterly, utterly absurd.

Tonight Atlas was at it again.. Barça played a decent(ish) half against Levante but looked like they could play for 100 years and not score, so on came Messi at half-time. Instantly they were more incisive and creative. Levante couldn’t live with the Argentine, and no one was surprised when he opened the score with a sublime bit of skill and a sharp finish.

In the end that was the only goal of the game, and while he was on Messi was by far the biggest threat to Levante. And that is a trend echoed through almost every single Barcelona game so far this season. The “Messidependencia” joke from a few years back is an almost literal truth. Without the Argentine, Barça are prone to flapping around and being useless. They need their mighty titan to hold them up (as he held the Liga trophy up tonight) so that people can witness the club’s brilliance and bow down before them.

2. Coutinho: a classy flop

The case of Philippe Coutinho is such a bizarre one. He’s obviously world-class but he just can’t seem to get it together. After a positive first half-season in 2017/18 he’s been incredibly, well, bad in 2018/19. One could be more eloquent about that but the Brazilian’s form really doesn’t even deserve eloquent criticism. He’s just bad.

Sometimes there’s still flashes of brilliance, a dribble here, a touch there, but it never coalesces. Even tonight against Levante he was incredibly bright in the first-half. His movement was sharp and his link-play was sublime. Levante couldn’t get near him. Yet whenever he was given the chance to impact the game with a shot, he absolutely whiffed.

Coutinho really should have had a hat-trick by half-time, and the fact that he didn’t (and was then removed for Leo Messi) despite playing wonderfully well was perfectly indicative of the way his season has gone and why, considering he is the world’s third-most expensive player, he is nothing short of a flop. A classy flop, but a flop all the same.

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3. Barcelona will give you a chance

Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona are a weird hybrid side with a coach who abhors risk. This manifests in a remarkable way when Barcelona take the lead. Whereas previous Barça sides would dominate the ball and control a game with such suffocating control that once they had a lead it was as good as over. You weren’t pegging them back.

Nowadays, Barcelona become reserved once they have a lead. It’s like they feel a one goal lead is enough and just retreat into themselves. Confident in their ability to hold defensively and then break on opponents (which is doubly weird because Valverde is so reluctant to use his fast players) they just chill and invite pressure from their opponents.

This often leads to absurd situations like the Levante game, where matches that should be dead and buried (Barça missed so many great chances because of a lack of commitment, focus and pace in attack) end up becoming really close and nervy. Levante hit the post in the closing minutes of the game tonight and ended the match as the dominant side despite the fact that they should have been about 5-0 down.

This is the absurd contradiction of Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona and something that could cost them in the long-term against bigger and better sides than little Levante.

4. Liverpool should be cautious but confident

Stepping away from La Liga for a second, Barcelona play Liverpool in the Champions League midweek and after their Friday night demolition of Huddersfield, the Reds will have watched Barça tonight and felt a surge of confidence rush through them.

After all, Liverpool are one of the world’s finest counter-attacking sides and they will take no prisoners. So they should be positive about their chance of progression, because if Barça play that poorly again with Klopp’s men on the other end of those counters, it could be a a beatdown.

That said, the Reds shouldn’t start jumping for joy, because they still have to actually go to the Camp Nou and make it happen; and if this season has shown us anything it’s the fact that this Barça side are at their best against opponents of similar or greater skill. Competition does seems to bring out the best in Ernesdto Valverde. But even with Barcelona playing well, their natural style with the high risk is likely to give the opponent chances, and sometimes Liverpool only need the one. Watch this space!

5. La Liga belongs to Barça

La Liga truly belongs to Barça, not just in the sense that they have retained their title so literally keep possession of the trophy – but in that they have truly established a dominion over the rest of the the Spanish top division. This was their 8th title win in the last 11 years and two of those league defeats were by the margin of a single match.

Not since Real Madrid in the 1960’s had a side been so completely dominant over an entire decade. Barcelona may have struggled in the Champions League but their ability to grind out league titles, the true mark of a club side’s greatness, cannot be overlooked or denied. With 26 they’re still a way off Madrid’s total of 33, but 10 of their titles have come this century whereas Madrid have won just six in that time. There is no doubt that they dominate modernity.

Whatever Ernesto Valverde’s flaws, he has enabled the Blaugrana to regain their grip over the Primera Division. This season their winning margin is 9 points, last year it was a gargantuan 14. And next season? Who knows, but would you bet against Barcelona from doing three in a row? With all the upheaval for both Madrid sides vs. the Blaugrana’s relative stability, the confident Barça fans will already be looking forward to another Liga title in 2019/20.

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