For a team that comfortably won the LaLiga title once again this season – an eighth success in their last 11 attempts – Barcelona have ended the 2018/19 campaign under a dark cloud.
If their experiences in the Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield broke them, then their loss to Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey was the definitive moment when they were kicked while already down.
When Lionel Messi appeared before the assembled members of the press in the build-up to facing Valencia, an event which is now something of an increasing rarity, the hot topic of interrogation remained Barcelona’s stunning capitulation against Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Remorseful and antagonised in equal measure, he offered yet another apology. To whom that apology was intended isn’t quite clear. There is certainly nothing that could be said to the Barcelona faithful that will ease their current pain levels. Perhaps Messi felt the need to apologise to the journalists in attendance. Maybe Messi was apologising to the gods of football and to gravity itself.
Weight of the world upon his shoulders, Messi is becoming increasingly irritable with football. Apart from the last 15 minutes or so of the Champions League semi-final first leg, throughout the two games against Liverpool, he cut a largely forlorn figure, despite his flashes of genius. He was frustrated for much of the 180 minutes played.
Conversely, Messi has produced yet more outrageous moments this season, inclusive of inventing what is essentially a Panenka free-kick. His repertoire knows no bounds; his talents have no contemporary betters. The older he gets, however, the more incorrigible he becomes when it comes to absorbing defeat. His temporary post-2014 World Cup international retirement was arguably the first real sign of this concept.
You aren’t meant to take defeat well, but only those blessed with the greatest of gifts mourn losses like they are meant to be immune from them.
This season, Barcelona won the LaLiga title by 11 points and finished 19 points clear of Real Madrid. The Champions League was last won by them in 2015, which doesn’t sound all that long ago until you realise by the first opportunity of winning it again, it will have been a five-year wait. They have only won the tournament once in their last eight attempts.
It has pained Messi and Barcelona to see Real Madrid win four of the last five Champions Leagues – a Real Madrid which has largely remained under their thumb in domestic terms.
When Real won the LaLiga title in 1989/90 – a fifth successive win – it was for the 25th time. In the near three decades since, Los Blancos have added just seven more domestic league titles to their honours list. They have been champions of Europe during that time as many times as they have been champions of their own nation.
By the end of that 1989/90 season, Real Madrid had won the LaLiga title 15 times more than Barcelona had. That gap has now been eroded to seven.
What Real Madrid did in the summer of 1990 was that they took their domestic dominance for granted. A cluster of European Cup semi-final defeats and a drought in that tournament which stretched back to 1966 became a heavy burden to carry. They lost focus on domestic matters and Johan Cruyff stepped in as his Barcelona won the next four LaLiga titles, while simultaneously writing a whole new set of scriptures at the Camp Nou that would be adhered to, almost to the letter, by most of the coaches to follow in Cruyff’s footsteps.
Basically, while Real Madrid became distracted by their pursuit for a holy European footballing grail, Barcelona built a dynasty that still reverberates today.
Suddenly however, Barcelona find themselves stood at a similar crossroads in 2019 to the one Real Madrid arrived at in 1990. Ernesto Valverde’s future at the Camp Nou is being openly doubted, despite his team riding off into the distance with the LaLiga title via a handsome winning margin.
To throw away a sizeable Champions League advantage, as they did in Rome last season, was careless. To throw away a second sizeable Champions League advantage, as they did in Liverpool this season, is proving difficult to forgive and impossible to forget.
Layered on top of this now is a Copa del Rey final defeat at the hands of a steadily rejuvenating Valencia.
An 11-point title winning gap is left to feel maddeningly hollow almost. Instead of rejoicing all summer long, Barcelona will brood; they will lick their wounds. Even worse, Zinedine Zidane will be plotting at the Santiago Bernabéu.
If not Valverde himself, Barcelona will have food for thought this summer. Messi cannot be the standard-bearer forever; Luis Suarez hasn’t fired on all cylinders; while Philippe Coutinho has never been welcomed at the club with open arms, despite the forceful nature with which he was pursued.
Along with Messi and Suarez, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitić, Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets are all in their 30s. Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi are ever distancing mirages. An ageing team trying to absorb painful psychological Champions League blows. The landscape of LaLiga is perhaps there to be altered should a club step forward with a compelling alternative to a Barcelona stood at a crucial crossroads.
A LaLiga title convincingly won, a Champions League semi-final reached and a Copa del Rey final lost: at face value, it doesn’t sound much like a crisis, but scratch away at the veneer and you find a Barcelona that looks far more exposed than they should be comfortable with.
At the very least, they need to go back to the drawing board as they’ve made the potentially fatal error of standing still, of ceasing to evolve. Within this, if they take their eye off consolidating domestically, to instead reach out for a short-term thrill on the European stage, then they might just gamble away the next generation of domestic supremacy that could see them reach LaLiga winning parity with the team from the capital.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74