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Venkataraman: The treble beckons

It is easy to forget in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding this current Barcelona team that an almost identical squad capitulated on its home pitch about a year ago. Absolutely needing a victory over an exhausted and depth-shorn Atlético Madrid squad on the final match day in La Liga, Barcelona suffered the ignominy of watching Los Colchoneros celebrate their first league title in oh-so-many years in front of their faces instead. Lionel Messi looked like a shell, Andres Iniesta looked like a corpse, the Barcelona defense looked beleaguered and an era of dominance that had begun with the rise of tiki-taka and continued through the days of Pep looked over and done.

Fast forward one year, and Barcelona secured a Champions League Final victory over Juventus, claiming its second treble in the last decade. All of a sudden, Messi is back to performing inhuman feats on a ridiculous basis, Iniesta (and even Xavi!) have turned back the clock and behind a rejuvenated Gerard Pique and the ever-cagey play of Javier Mascherano, Barcelona has never looked better. The shift, both in personnel and in attitude, is palpable.

The marquee addition to Barcelona’s squad was clearly Luis Suarez, a brilliant striker without question, but one with a footballing rap sheet longer than the list of indictments brought against FIFA by the U.S. government last week.

Although Suarez was suspended from play for the early bits of the season, since his ascension to the starting lineup, Barcelona’s attack has been unstoppable, with Messi, Neymar and Suarez combining for 120 goals this season.

Fueling the power surge has been the wonderfully effective Ivan Rakitic, who has slotted into the Blaugrana offensive system with ease. His ability to metronomically control the tempo in midfield, coupled with his incredible vision, work rate and comfort on the ball, has been a huge factor in Barcelona’s success.

Finally, in goal, the additions of Claudio Bravo (for the league) and Marc Andre ter-Stegen (for cups) have proved solid and reliable replacements for the departed Victor Valdes. Meanwhile, longtime Barcelona players like Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets have also returned to their elite form. This is a team firing on all cylinders and peaking at the perfect time.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the work of their first-year coach, Luis Enrique. A former player, he has the kind of cachet and weight within the club that last year’s coach, Tata Martino, could never enjoy. Martino, if you will recall, received immense stick for trying to move away from the tiki-taka style of play — giving up the characteristic (and occasionally frustrating) side-to-side ball movement in favor of direct, incisive, vertical passing.

Barcelona’s possession stats dropped, and the results weren’t always pretty, but it was hard to deny that the strategy wasn’t at least a bit effective. Enrique, while respecting the tiki-taka style, has added in a significant counter-attacking element to Barcelona’s game, in addition to maintaining the occasionally direct passing that Martino sought to instill.

And who wouldn’t want that kind of flexibility? Neymar and Messi are some of the fastest players on the planet, perfect for hitting pushy opponents with counter-attacks. Suarez is the quintessential target man: able to hold the ball up and find those making runs while also being one of the greatest strikers, finishers and poachers alive. Enrique had his early missteps, most notably benching Messi in a league game (that Barcelona lost) early this year. But as the season progressed, “Lucho” has gotten his tactics mostly right, and Barcelona has just steamrolled the competition.

At Real Madrid, despite winning the Champions League (the 10th the club has won) just last year, Carlo Ancelotti is out the door. The big clubs have immense resources but also very little patience for failure, and while it would be thoroughly unfair, not winning the Champions League final this year would be considered a massive disappointment for this team. With a transfer ban upcoming, making signing new players impossible for at least a few windows, this Barcelona squad will look very much the same come next season.

Could another Barcelona dynasty be in the cards? Only time will tell, but all eyes will be on Berlin this coming weekend. Reclaiming the Champions League trophy from holders and archrivals Real Madrid would be a fine start.

Vignesh Venkataraman won’t be watching the Champions League final this weekend, though — he’s busy getting a degree and all that jazz (rather, Indian classical music in Viggy’s case). Tell him that grades are overrated at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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