MADRID: A year that equals the best in Barcelona’s history, with La Liga in the bag and Champions League and Copa del Rey finals to come, couldn’t have started more inauspiciously.
The Catalans opened 2015 with a 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad on the field and descended into full blown institutional crisis off it.
Lionel Messi and Neymar had been left on the bench in San Sebastian after returning back from their Christmas holidays later than the rest of their teammates, a decision which didn’t rest well with the former as he skipped an open training session with the club’s fans the next day.
On the same day, sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked and his assistant and club legend Carles Puyol walked.
The following week Luis Enrique’s job was on the line as champions Atletico Madrid visited the Camp Nou, but rather than leave their coach out to dry, Barca produced their best performance of the season and set in motion a run of 29 wins in 32 games to propel them to glory on all fronts.
“From the game against Real Sociedad, everything changed,” Messi admitted weeks later. “The attitude, the desire of the team to go out on the field in a different way and to press.”
The biggest change came from Messi himself, though. A week after the Sociedad game, the four-time World Player of the Year had to watch Cristiano Ronaldo pick up his third Ballon d’Or and pronounce he was coming for Messi’s record.
Yet, in the five months which have followed it, Messi has again taken the lead in the rivalry between the two and recovered the level that made him the world’s best between 2009 and 2012.
“I see him strong, quick, competitive. He has returned to being the player I had the privilege to coach,” said the most successful coach in Barca’s history, Pep Guardiola, after watching a Messi masterclass eliminate his Bayern Munich side in the Champions League last week.
If Messi’s 54 goals and 30 assists have been the catalyst for Barca’s stellar run, Neymar and Luis Suarez have starred in the supporting role.
Messi’s upturn in the new year coincided with Suarez recovering his best form after a four-month ban for biting at the World Cup and a switch in positions between the two as the Uruguayan played more centrally to allow Messi to use his full repertoire of skills from a deeper role.
Suarez has added a different dimension to Barcelona, a directness and, at times, nastiness that offers more variety than had even Guardiola’s trophy-laden four years in charge.
“He gives Barca the aggression that is so important in the attacking third,” said Atletico boss Diego Simeone, who, having seen his side go unbeaten in six games against Barca last season, lost all four meetings this campaign.
Meanwhile, Neymar’s 37 goals means he has struck more than the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo or Thierry Henry ever managed for Barca in a single season.
Although often overlooked given his star-studded squad, Enrique also deserves his share of the credit. The former Celta Vigo coach’s rotation policy was much criticised in the first half of the season.
Enrique didn’t name the same starting line-up for two consecutive league games until mid-January. However, whilst title rivals Real Madrid have floundered physically in the final few months of the campaign, Barca have got stronger when it matters most.
Fittingly it was at Atletico, exactly a year to the day since Los Rojiblancos won the league at the Camp Nou, where the league title was won on Sunday thanks to a piece of Messi genius.
The first trophy of what they hope and most expect to be a treble in three weeks time in Berlin.