After city rivals Espanyol dealt Barcelona their first loss since the Spanish Supercup, everyone waited with baited breath to see how they might respond. Ivan Rakitic scored early and Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez added two goals each as the Blaugrana silenced their critics and trounced Real Betis 5-0 for their 17th La Liga win.
The win proves that Ernesto Valverde´s side has separated the cup from the league. Just like in the round of 16, the former Athletic Bilbao star fielded a sub-par team in the first leg and got a sub-par result, a 1-1 draw at Celta Vigo. However, the regular starters had no time shrugging it off, following up the draw with a 3-0 win over Levante.
It may be only January but a second Barcelona treble in just four seasons seems more and more of a possibility. A surprise Atlético Madrid draw vs. Girona puts Barca 11 points up in La Liga, meaning they have all but clinched the title with 18 matches left to play. Five of the top six Spanish sides may still be alive for the Copa del Rey, but Barca are second favorites. The Champions League may be anybody´s guess, but Barca is Vegas’ fourth-favorite to win its sixth European trophy.
The team won 42, drawn nine and lost only eight matches last season, but the lack of silverware was enough for manager Luis Enrique to mutually part ways with the club. Enter Ernesto Valverde, former star player and manager of Basque rival Athletic Bilbao.
The former striker failed his first test, losing the SuperCup 5-1 at the handles of fierce rivals Real Madrid. Valverde changed the lineup considerably between the two matches, but to no avail. Barca lost both by two-goal margins.
He changed formations again for the league opener at Real Betis, and his 4-4-1-1 worked for a 2-0 victory. Despite the absence of Luis Suárez, Barca got lucky with an Alin Tosca own goal in the first half. Sergi Roberto followed up with his own strike and Barcelona went on to win their next eight matches.
The season´s first hiccup came at Atlético Madrid. Diego Simeone´s defensive side have always caused Barcelona trouble. The story of this match was not the first draw of the season, but rather Barca´s resilience. They came back from down 1-0 away from home and Luis Suárez rescued a point from the match.
Nevertheless, Atletico had exposed one of the most dominant sides in Europe. They showed as they have a few times in the last decade that defense and counterattack are the mantra for a result against Barca.
The Blaugrana may have gone on to win their next four matches, but Olympiacos exposed them again before Juventus forced another 0-0 draw. Even more surprisingly, Celta Vigo forced the first draw at the Camp Nou. Iago Aspas and Maxi Gómez matched Messi and Luis Suárez for a 2-2 result.
Valverde shook things up next match vs. Sporting, resting Messi, Paulinho, and Sergio Busquets at the start, and the unorthodox moves brought the mojo back. In the next match, all three players transitioned seamlessly back into the side. Messi scoring and Busquets assisting in a 2-0 win over Villareal.
A 4-0 win over Deportivo, and Barca were back off to the races. They followed with a 3-0 victory at Real Madrid, making last year´s champions look like a bottom-half side.
But Barca did not stop there. League wins over Levante, Real Sociedad and now Betis mean they have outscored their opponents 29-4 since that Celta Vigo draw.
The true secret to Barca´s success has been their depth. The side´s astronomical budget, unrivaled academy, and textbook tiki-taka style have built one of the strongest benches in the history of football. A whopping 22 players have made La Liga or Champions League starts. 14 have scored goals and 15 have assists.
These stats mean Valverde perhaps has more confidence than any other manager to rotate his players. He has the freedom to start unorthodox lineups and experiment throughout the season. He can take risks and still get results, as the major switches ahead of the Sporting game showed.
However, even the most talented teams need a good manager to set formations and give his players that extra push. Valverde impressed the Barcelona brass in Bilbao, leading his former club to four straight top seven finishes. The Extremaduran´s expertise and fire are as important to Barca´s success as their skill.
Last season, the Blaugrana won the cup but fell three points short in the league. They also bowed out in the Champions League quarterfinals. With a fanbase and ownership that consider anything but a trophy failure, a strong finish in 2018 is imperative.
Valverde´may continue to tinker, but it seems as if the current 4-4-2 is likely the best iteration. Busquets and Rakitic pair nicely behind Messi and Luis Suárez, combining for 44 goals in all competitions. A stacked Champions League knockout stage and a formidable Copa Del Rey field lie ahead, but a 2017-18 Barcelona treble seems less of a pipe dream and more of an actual possibility.