October 26, 2016

Messi inspires Barca’s reign in Spain

Messi. Photo: AFP

Barcelona turned around a terrible start to 2015 to end the year as the undisputed kings of Spanish football once more having sealed a second treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in just six years.

The Catalans lost their first game of the year to former Manchester United manager David Moyes’s Real Sociedad, sparking an internal crisis at the club.

Star player Lionel Messi refused to attend a training session with the club’s fans, whilst sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was sacked and his assistant and club legend Carles Puyol resigned in support.

Coach Luis Enrique’s job was even thought to be on the line, but Messi’s relationship with Luis Suarez and Neymar blossomed in a period of 20 wins in 21 matches that took Barca to the brink of matching the most glorious season in their 116-year history under Pep Guardiola in 2008/09.

Messi trumped Guardiola on his first return home as an opposing coach as the Argentine scored twice and set up Neymar for a third as Barca decisively won the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich 3-0 before progressing to the final 5-3 on aggregate.

A fifth La Liga title in seven years was swiftly sealed thanks to Messi’s winner at Atletico Madrid as a hitherto rampant Real Madrid floundered in the spring, albeit the final advantage was a mere two points.

More Messi magic delivered the Copa del Rey two weeks later. The four-time World Player of the Year scoring one of his most memorable ever goals as he somehow escaped the attentions of four Athletic Bilbao defenders to open the scoring in a 3-1 win.

Seven days later in Berlin, Messi wasn’t on the scoresheet, but it mattered little as Barca saw off Juventus by the same scoreline to seal the treble and a fifth European Cup.

Suarez and Neymar netted the decisive goals against the Italian champions to take the trio’s tally for the season to a barely believable 122.

In Spain, Madrid and Barca are a seesaw. When one is up the other is inevitably down and so it proved as just a year after delivering the club’s treasured 10th European Cup, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked as Madrid boss for not delivering a major trophy.

The decision by president Florentino Perez wasn’t a popular one amongst the players and fans and even less so when former Madrid youth team coach Rafael Benitez was wheeled out as the Italian’s replacement.

Benitez has been unable to halt Madrid’s annus horribilis, but the blame for the majority of the club’s ills lies above his head.

A humiliating 4-0 defeat at home to a Barca side shorn of Messi for an hour in November saw calls for his sacking, which until now Perez has resisted.

Indeed, the biggest embarrassment for Madrid came off the field. The richest club in the world were thrown out of the Copa del Rey this month for fielding an ineligible player.

Outside the Barca-Madrid duopoly, Atletico Madrid remained the best of the rest with an impressive core of young players that could fight for honours in 2016.

Sevilla confirmed Spanish dominance of European football with their fourth Europa League title in 10 years.

Despite starting the year by beating Barca, it wasn’t to be for Moyes at Sociedad as he too was sacked after an ultimately fruitless year in San Sebastian.

But as one door closed, another opened for a British coach abroad as Gary Neville was surprisingly named Valencia boss for the rest of this season in December.

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