Why your Champions League money should be on Barcelona
Background photo: Tsutomu Takasu: CC BY 2.0
Truly, it is a beautiful experience to win a trophy. Every time. Trophies represent the reward for hard work and commitment over a long period but when we talk about winning the Champions League, the experience is clearly incomparable. In fact, it's addictive. When a club becomes used to that feeling, going without is worse than a heroin addict going cold turkey.
It was on 6 June 2015 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin that Barcelona defeated Juventus to win their fifth Champions League crown. Three years ago.
The Catalan giants overpowered their Italian counterparts in a match that ended 3-1 courtesy of goals from Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez and Neymar Junior. That summer, the Blaugrana were on top of the world, a natural high from which no one wants to come down. The European Cup completed a treble that included La Liga and the Copa Del Rey. They haven't won it since. They haven't even been close.
In the three seasons following, the Blaugrana haven't advanced beyond the quarterfinal round. To make matters worse, arch-rivals Real Madrid claimed the title in each campaign, the second time they'd won the trophy three or more times in succession [1956-60], a feat that rubbed more salt in Barcelona's wound and rendered them desperate to return to the European summit.
Barcelona believed they held a genuine opportunity to defend the trophy successfully under Luis Enrique in 2016 in what would have been the first time in the Champions League era. The attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar Junior were unplayable when the new campaign began. Going into the knockout rounds, all eyes were on the Blaugrana to make history.
But Barca's lack of squad depth betrayed them. Enrique played his preferred eleven too often. Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Rakitic, Dani Alves and other key figures in the team featured in almost every game across every competition. They were not given adequate rest. Fatigue affected the squad in the later rounds.
Despite claiming a 2-1 victory over Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinal first leg, the Rojiblancos turned the table, defeating Barca 2-0 to snuff out the dream.
Ernesto Valverde learned a similar lesson last term when Roma came from 4-1 down to win on away goals at the Estadio Olimpico in the Eternal City. The former Athletic Bilbao boss built an enviable squad over the summer, with highly talented superstars in all areas of the pitch as well as high-quality options to provide rigid competition and quality support from the bench.
Players from the youth system are impressing again. Carles Alena, Ruiqui Puig, and Chumi all displayed their priceless talents and incredible maturity during the past few weeks while new signings began coming good at the Nou Camp.
Apart from having a strong army to battle it out in Europe this season, Barcelona also have a magnificent commander on the pitch. Lionel Messi continues to put up unforgettable numbers in leading the Blaugrana attack. The Argentine bulled his way through the group stage, producing to his typical Ballon d'Or standard before an awkward tackle left him with a fractured wrist.
In just 4 games, the diminutive playmaker found the back of the net on 6 occasions, punctuating the string of goals with an assist. Having initially promised to do everything in order to return the Champions League to the Nou Camp this season, Leo is delivering the goods.
Apart from Messi, Barcelona also have other superstars who can make the difference in big games. Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele can unlock any defence, each with their genius.
Arturo Vidal and Kevin-Prince Boateng bring a new element. The aggression and physicality in their play forces bigger opponents to think twice about bullying the Cules. Arthur Melo's playmaking ability augments Rakitic's. Jordi Alba's service from the left flank provides width and air freight for new man Boateng.
Barcelona are looking lively and hungry for success. Indeed, the Catalans are ready to win the Champions League this season. Intent is one thing, however, achievement another. The task begins with Lyon on 19 February.