On Sunday it became a case of one down, two to go for Barcelona. Chasing the club’s second ever treble, Barcelona wrapped up the Primera Division title with a game to spare by beating Atletico Madrid 1-0 courtesy of Lionel Messi’s second-half goal. And now their sights can firmly set on the Copa del Rey final in two weeks’ time before heading to Berlin to attempt to become kings of Europe once more in the Champions League final.
After the party on Sunday night, next week’s hosting of Deportivo La Coruna is now set to be little more than fine-tuning ahead of two finals that give Barcelona the chance join Pep Guardiola’s 2008-2009 team as the only treble winners in the club’s esteemed history. And next week’s league finale now provides an opportunity for coach Luis Enrique to give some members of his squad a well-deserved rest ahead of the winner-takes-all clashes with Athletic Bilbao and Juventus.
It is Enrique’s squad rotation earlier in the campaign that has played a major part in Barcelona being in the position to win three trophies coming down the stretch. It was a policy that created much tension at the start of the season, with the lineup regularly being changed and struggling to find its fluidity. But those decisions have now paid dividends and Barcelona have been noticeably fresher in the title run in than their chief rivals Real Madrid. The fact that the club currently has no major injuries, with Luis Suárez set for a speedy recovery after missing out against Atletico with a hamstring strain, is a major positive.
“Freshness is key when it comes to the hour to take decisions,” Enrique said in April, according to Catalan publication Sport.
Ironically, though, it was Enrique’s rotation that almost brought Barcelona’s season crashing down before instead providing its turning point. In the first match back from the winter break, Lionel Messi and Neymar both began on the bench as Barcelona went down 1-0 to Real Sociedad. The following day reports were rife of a sizable rift between Messi and Enrique after the club’s leading goalscorer of all time missed training. It was the first and last time Messi was left out of the team this season when he has been fit.
His job then precarious, Enrique learned quick that there had to be some limitations to implementing his own methods. Indeed, perhaps ceding some authority to his players, particularly Messi, has been one of Enrique’s greatest assets this season.
Barcelona’s hugely successful campaign to date has been built around the sensational forward trio of Messi, Neymar and Suárez. But the early signs were that Barcelona could find a similar problem to their great rivals Real Madrid -- that simply throwing together a collection of great attacking players does not ensure success. Suárez struggled to integrate into the team initially upon his return from suspension. And it wasn’t until he and Messi switched positions that the trio hit it off to such spectacular effect. According to Suárez, the decision for Messi to move from the center to the right came of the Argentine’s own suggestion during a match. Enrique was happy to stick with it.
Between them, the trio now has an incredible 115 goals this season. The task of stopping them now falls to first Athletic Bilbao and then Juventus. For Athletic the challenge is made even tougher by the fact that the Copa del Rey final on May 30 will take place in Barcelona’s own Camp Nou. Already this season the Basque club have shipped five goals against Barcelona’s star forward line, in 2-0 and 5-2 victories for Barcelona.
Juventus should provide a sterner test. While far from the cynical defensive outfit of the Italian "catenaccio" stereotype, Massimiliano Allegri’s side showed in holding firm against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals that they can be a resilient defensive force when needs must. It is, though, likely to require a super-human effort to stop a front three on course for a historic season and a Barcelona team with their eyes sharpening in on the treble.