There was a night in Berlin when hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in to watch a match between the best two clubs in Europe. Juventus had just beaten Real Madrid off a great performance from Madrid’s own Alvaro Morata, and Barcelona had just squeezed through a stacked Bayern Munich team, coached by Barcelona’s former manager, and perennial title winner, Pep Guardiola. The teams were different then than now, Juventus having a lineup with Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba, Morata, and Carlos Tevez; Barça still employed the services of Xavi and Pedro. Rakitic gave Barça the lead early on, but Morata equalized ten minutes into the second half. With the game tight and Juventus gaining ground, Messi’s shot was blocked wide and Suárez put it back in to give Barcelona the lead. To finish it off, as we all know, and Neymar struck late and gave Barcelona a 3-1 lead. They had won the treble: La Liga, La Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League.
That was Luis Enrique’s first season as manager. It was the second time in Barça’s history they’d won the treble; no other team had ever done that. Last season was also very successful, even though they saw themselves knocked out by Atlético de Madrid in the Champions League. Barcelona, again with Luis Enrique as coach, won la Copa and La Liga. The question now is, in Enrique’s third year, with new reinforcements in the transfer market, can they do it again? Can they go all the way?
Let’s start domestically. La Liga is looking to be even better (and by extension, closer) this year now that Barcelona have a new infusion of players, Madrid will finally, maybe, for once, have a stable coach in Zinedine Zidane, and Atlético upgraded their attack by signing Kevin Gameiro to go along with Antoine Griezmann. Sevilla and Villareal have both let their old managers go, hoping to get better results out of Jorge Sampaoli and Fran Escribá. Is La Liga winnable?
It absolutely is. Barça have added a different sort of attacking style in André Gomes and Denis Suárez to supplement Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta, a more direct style, though both are technically gifted. The MSN remains in full force, Suarez fresh off his best season ever and Messi looking invigorated and motivated after his disappointing Copa America defeat. Neymar has finally begun to enjoy some success in the Rio Olympics, something that should give him confidence and help his progression as a player. The back line of Pique, Mascherano, Alba, and Sergi Roberto give a good mix of defensive toughness and forward play, along with skilled players in Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne. In short, Barça is a (really) great team.
Something that cannot be overlooked, however, are injuries. Madrid’s front three are especially prone to them, and Cristiano Ronaldo will be out for a while longer due to an injury suffered versus France in the Euros. Bale has missed extended time to hamstring issues, among other things, and Benzema has also been shown to miss significant portions of the season for small injuries that accumulate. While Madrid is a talented team, an injury to one of its players could see them slip a bit in the standings.
Atlético is also a talented team, but they’ve had their own issues in the past: Diego Simeone’s style: don’t concede at any cost. They’re a tough team that wants to frustrate opponents and then score on the break. Put an early goal past them, and they may struggle to bring the game back in their favor. That’s how Barça beat them twice last season. Both times, Atlético scored first, but when Barça applied their ‘MSN’ flavored pressure, they were unable to make up the difference in goal scoring. A talented offense (check) with a possession retaining midfield (check) and a disciplined back line (check) can defeat Atlético.
As for other La Liga teams, they might win a game or two against Barça, but the talent gap, especially with the new signings, should be more than enough to keep them at bay.
This brings us to the Copa del Rey. Apart from the aforementioned teams , hometown rivals Espanyol and the ever present Athletic Bilbao are always tough to play. On paper, however, La Copa is probably the easiest of the three competitions, but it can’t be overlooked. If Barça play their style and maintain possession without letting the other teams have chances on the break or in between the lines, they should be able to win this trophy. After all, they are the reigning champions.
The Champions League might just be the trickiest of the lot. The top teams from each country in Europe include some very good teams (Real Madrid, Atlético, Juventus, Bayern Munich) and good teams that, while not as talented, can still shock a top side (PSG, Napoli, Leicester City, Dortmund). Juventus is a well-rounded team with a BBC of their own in Barzagli, Bonnuci and Chiellini and a potent attack with newly-signed Higuaín, Mandzukic, and Dybala, not to mention a familiar face in Dani Alves. Expect a Juventus-Barcelona clash to be tough, especially with insider intel from Dani. Munich, with new coach Carlo Ancelotti, might face an adjustment period at first, but are perennial title winners in Germany and have maybe the most talent in the competition apart from Barça. They are an attack-minded team with young players in David Alaba and newly signed Renato Sanches that can add extra bite to an already potent attack. Manchester City and Manchester United have improved talent-wise as well. City’s new coach, another familiar face, is capable of a great season. City could go far in the competition despite not having the high profile names of other teams because Guardiola is just that good. Manchester United, coached by Jose Mourinho, has added huge names in Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but their defense remains a question mark and they’ll need some time to figure out how to incorporate their new signings, starting off in the Europa League for this season.
All these teams have a common denominator: offense. Barça’s offense will take care of itself; they simply have too many talented players and too much offensive quality, and that will show. No team in the Champions League will be able to defend them completely, and their offense will be the best in the world again. Their defense, however, will need to be stout and disciplined.
Is the defense capable of such a task? Limiting the world’s top offenses? For one thing, Barça have players that have been there and done that. Piqué, Mascherano and Alba have won the Champions league before (the former two more than once), and Sergio Busquets, who sometimes shifts down to provide defense, almost acts like a third center back. In 2014/15, when they won the Champions League and had virtually the same defenders, they started the season with six clean sheets, the first and only club to do that twice; they kept 12 clean sheets in the first half of the La Liga season (a club record); they allowed only 0.53 goals per game in their 19 away games, and to top it all of, they won the Zamora trophy for the 20th time, an all-time record in La Liga history, That contributed to them receiving only 21 goals all season. As for the Champions League, they conceded only 11 goals and kept 6 clean sheets in 13 games. It’s worth noting that Munich and PSG both scored 3 goals on Barça in games that didn’t matter (PSG in the group stage and Munich in the second leg of the semifinal when Barcelona already had an insurmountable lead).
So the question as to whether Barcelona can win the treble seems to have a clear answer. Can they do it again and become the only team with three trebles ever? Can Luis Enrique add to his already impressive résumé?
The answer is yes. Barça have the talent and quality to win all three competitions again. It’ll take a little luck, some injuries to other teams, and good coaching and rotation of players. It’ll take their world-best offense and brilliant midfield. It’ll take their title-winning defense from two years ago. Can they do it again? Yes, but it’s not going to be easy.
by Luis Garcia