The conclusion of Barcelona’s 2016-17 campaign resulted in the powerhouse club being in a precarious situation.
Their archrival, Real Madrid, won the La Liga title as well as the Champions League, while Barca had to be content with silverware from the lesser Copa del Rey tournament. Barcelona’s manager at the time, Luis Enrique, announced prior to the end of the season that he planned to step down as manager of the team at seasons’ end, and was replaced by former Blaugrana striker Ernesto Valverde. Their front line of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez lost their compatriot, Neymar, when he decided late in the summer to take his talents to France and allow Paris Saint-Germain to activate his buy-out clause of over $200 million. With an aging back line and so many changes to deal with at the onset of the 2017-2018 season, optimism was in short supply at the Camp Nou.
Fast-forward to the present, and Barcelona seem almost unbeatable. They easily advanced beyond the group stage in the Champions League and continue to advance in the Copa del Rey. In the La Liga table, they find themselves in the top spot at the season’s midseason amrk, having yet to lose a league match after 19 games. The Blaugrana are ahead of second-place Atletico Madrid by nine points and an astounding 19 points ahead of Real Madrid (although Los Blancos have one game in hand).
This leads us to an important question — why have Barcelona been able to garner such a high level of success this season?
Like a Fine Bottle of Wine, Messi Keeps Getting Better
After 19 games, Lionel Messi leads La Liga in goals scored with 17, and is second in assists with eight. At 30 years of age, with a new contract that should keep Messi in Barcelona for the remainder of his career, his production clearly shows no sign of decline at the current time. Unlike last season, Messi has managed to stay relatively injury-free. As Messi goes, so goes Barcelona.
Luis Suarez Is Back on Track
While Lionel Messi leads La Liga in goals scored, Suarez is second. with 13. After scoring only three times through late-November, Suarez has scored 10 goals since then and seems to have regained his offensive prowess. Having two strikers in tandem like Messi and Suarez create headaches for opposing defenses, since few teams are equipped with a defense able to successfully mark both forwards.
The Defense Has Been Stellar
While much is made of the front line of Barcelona, their back line has been suspect in past seasons. However, this season has seen a welcomed change. Barca has given up a miserly nine goals through the first 19 games, bested only by Atletico Madrid (eight goals ceded). With a goal differential of +43, twice as much as their nearest competitor, this is a testament to both Barca’s offense and defense.
Enter Philippe Coutinho
After almost a year of negotiations, Barcelona finally succeeded in procuring the services of Coutinho from Liverpool, albeit at a steep cost. While a previous injury is expected to sideline the Brazilian for another two weeks, it is expected that he will be able to transition to the Barca midfield fairly easily once healthy. More importantly, it is believed that he will eventually replace 33-year-old Blaugrana legend Andres Iniesta by taking over the veteran’s role. Coutinho is initially expected to be both a playmaker and goal-scorer, while his transfer cost will be more than paid for from the Neymar move to PSG.
The Remaining Schedule Favors Barca
While the season is only halfway complete, the toughest teams Barcelona will face (Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid) will both play their remaining game at the Camp Nou. Given the level of play that Barcelona has performed at this season, it is difficult to see how the other top-tier teams in the league will be able to overtake the Blaugrana for the top spot by the end of May.
Barcelona is going to hoist the trophy — lock it up.