Not since Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona has the feeling of optimism been stronger among the Cules. In Luis Enrique, they have found a tactician capable of carrying their team into a new era – an era without club legends Carles Puyol, Xavi and Victor Valdes, although the season was not without crisis for the former Barcelona midfielder. Luis Enrique has his ups and downs this season but finished triumphant, just like his team.
Big Changes Afoot
Following their disappointing and trophy-less 2013-14 season, a complete overhaul was called for at Barcelona. Tata Martino had resigned after relinquishing the La Liga crown to Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique was given the reins at the club, perhaps with the hope that he will follow in the footsteps of another former Barcelona B coach who managed the senior team to greatness. Carles Puyol announced his retirement after 15 years at the club and Victor Valdes became a free agent as his contract was not renewed. To fill the big hole left by Valdes, Barcelona signed the promising German, Marc-Andre ter Stegen from Borussia Monchengladbach and Claudio Bravo from Real Sociedad. Both would go on to play key roles in the season.
Rakitic was brought in to bring more directness to Barca’s play
As part of the overhaul, out went Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea for 33 million Euros and Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal for 42 million Euros, after possibly his best season at Camp Nou. Also on his way was youth system all time leading goal scorer Bojan, who left for Stoke City to join fellow Barca old boys Marc Muniesa and manager Mark Hughes. Promising talent Cristian Tello also left on a two year loan to Porto. With the mass exodus, and with the transfer ban on Barcelona for 2015 in mind, Luis Suarez was brought in for 75 million Euros after a splendid season with Liverpool. However, his gastronomical desires at the World Cup meant Suarez would be unavailable for Barca till October 26th. Also signed was Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla for 18 million Euros, who had led his team to the 2013-14 Europa League title with a man of the match display. Perhaps the signing that raised more eyebrows was defender Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia for 20 million Euros – the most expensive defender over 30. Although not a household name, Mathieu fitted all the attributes needed in a Barcelona centre back.
Barcelona comfortably won their opener against Elche, with a 3-0 win in front of the home fans, as Lionel Messi began his season with a brace. Teenager Munir also got off the mark. The next two games were tight wins against Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao, which were followed by the 5-0 hammering of Levante and the 6-0 thrashing of Granada. Sandwiched between these wins, however, was the disappointing goalless draw away at Malaga, where Claudio Bravo had to save face for Barcelona. Messi’s brace against Granada took him to 400 career goals.
A Champions League win over APOEL from Cyprus was followed by the narrow 3-2 defeat at the hands of Paris St. Germain. However, they responded with wins over Rayo Vallecano and Eibar – where Messi scored his 250th La Liga goal. Barcelona were top of the table, much to the delight of the Cules. Ajax Amsterdam were also dispatched 3-1 in the Champions League.
Luis Enrique had his ups and downs this season.
Perhaps of concern to the pessimistic Barcelona fans was the team’s performance against quality opposition. Barca had been unable to get past PSG in the Champions League, which showed there was still work to be done against top quality opponents. These fears were realized on October 25th as Real Madrid ended their unbeaten start to the league with a strong 3-1 win. The match also marked the debut of Luis Suarez, who looked indifferent and short of match-practice on the right. Neymar’s lead was cancelled out by Cristiano Ronaldo. Pepe and Karim Benzema then gave them a deserved victory, as Madrid moved to within a point of Barcelona in the league table.
Worse was to follow as an ineffectual Barcelona showed up at the Nou Camp against Celta Vigo. They lost 1-0, and the first murmurs of dissent went through the stands at the Nou Camp. At the same weekend, Real Madrid thrashed Granada 4-0 to move to the top of La Liga. Luis Enrique had his first set-back. Close wins over Almeria and Valencia either side of the 5-1 thrashing of Sevilla meant Barcelona kept up with leaders Madrid. A 4-0 win over Huesca in the Copa del Rey was followed by a 5-1 victory over rivals Espanyol, as Messi scored his 21st La Liga hat-trick, close on the heels of Cristiano Ronaldo’s 23 – the battle between the two greatest players in the world indicative of the battle between the top two in the league.
A goal-less draw with Getafe and a win against Cordoba was followed by a big 3-1 win over PSG in the Champions League and a convincing 8-1 hammering of Huesca. All seemed well again at Barcelona. But little did they know that both the lowest point of the season and the turning point was upon them. David Moyes’s Real Sociedad shocked the league with a 1-0 win over Barca, as Luis Enrique, complacently, benched Messi, Neymar, Dani Alves and Pique. The crisis at Barcelona was full blown now, as reports came in of a rift between Enrique and Messi. The fans at the Camp Nou were split on their opinion of their manager.
The defeat to Real Sociedad proved to be a turning point for Barcelona. Enrique made subtle changes to the team, the most important being switching the positions of Messi and Suarez. The Uruguayan had looked out of sorts on the right, and Enrique moved Messi to the right instead, making Suarez the focal point of the attack. The move worked to a charm as Messi was allowed more time on the ball from a deeper position, to influence the attack. Wins over Elche and Atletico Madrid in the cup, and Atletico Madrid, Deportivo and Elche in the league saw Barcelona surge back into the race for the title.
Successive wins over Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Levante cut Madrid’s lead at the top to one point. An unexpected defeat to Malaga was followed by Champions League success against Manchester City, the league win over Granada and dispatching off of Villarreal in the Copa del Rey. Barcelona finally reclaimed top spot with a 6-1 win over Rayo Vallecano. And wins over Eibar and City to move into the quarter finals of the Champions League meant that when they welcomed Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, Barcelona were in the driving seat. Jeremy Mathieu gave Barca a headed lead, which was cancelled out by Cristiano Ronaldo. However, Suarez, getting to the grips of La Liga now, scored the winner with his 14th goal of the season.
Wins over Celta Vigo and Almeria were followed by the hiccup against Sevilla with whom they drew. The draw gave a lifeline to Real Madrid as the battle for top spot intensified. Next, they got past PSG in the Champions League quarterfinals and wins over Valencia, Espanyol and Getafe kept them on track for the league title.
Barcelona destroyed Cordoba 8-0 before welcoming back Pep Guardiola, who took his Bayern Munich side to the Camp Nou for the Champions League semi final first leg. In an entertaining match where Bayern tried to match Barcelona’s brilliance, it was Messi who was the difference as the Catalans won 3-0, and despite losing the second leg in Germany, went through to the final. They next travelled to Atletico Madrid, where a win would give them the La Liga crown. Messi again was the difference as Luis Enrique won his first title as Barcelona manager.
An era came to an end as Xavi bade farewell to Barcelona. It was an emotional moment for him as well as all the Cules as a montage of his time at the Camp Nou played out after Barca’s last game of the season. Wins over Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final and the Champions League final against Juventus meant Barcelona completed the treble for a second time, after their 2009 triumph.
Player of the Season
Messi was the player of the season by a long shot
Messi’s stature has grown in the club. Not just in terms of goals, but leadership. This season, the Argentine has been as prolific as ever. His competition with Cristiano Ronaldo reached an all time high, with both players striving to better the other. Messi, in all competitions this season, scored 58 goals and 23 assists. A staggering achievement in itself, but Messi has gone on from strength to strength this season, breaking Barcelona’s all-time highest goal-scorer record.
Goal of the Season
There are many to choose from – Rakitic’s bullet against Levante, Messi’s efforts against Espanyol, and Iniesta’s goal against Huesca, reminiscent of his Champions League goals against Chelsea in 2009. So, we leave you with the top 20 goals for Barcelona last season.