When Barcelona plays Liverpool tonight in the Camp Nou, they will be facing a team that has not won the league title in England for nearly three decades. Soccer, like life, throws up situations that help you to appreciate what you have. When I arrived at Manchester United in 1996, the “red devils” were already eyeing Liverpool’s 18 championships with a mixture of longing and envy. At that time, there was still an abyss of eight tournaments between us. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge, one that ended up becoming an obsession for Sir Alex Ferguson as the gap closed and Liverpool got bogged down in its long journey in the wilderness. When Ferguson retired, there were more than 20 trophies in the Old Trafford showcase – two more than their long-term rival and an historical achievement.
But you should never underestimate a hungry opponent. Liverpool is now a force to be reckoned with in both the Premier League and the Champions, and it is a highly dangerous team. Jürgen Klopp has managed to get his players to control their transitions like no one else, and to come out fast and dynamically. He counts on the destabilizing influence of Mohamed Salah at this stage of the season, and has fast wingers and midfielders. Without a doubt, Barça has its work cut out at this semifinal.
You should never underestimate a hungry opponent. Liverpool is now a force to be reckoned with in both the Premier League and the Champions
But it would be a mistake to think that the Champions League defines a team’s success in any given season, and downplay the merit of winning eight of the last 11 domestic championships. The Champions League is a tournament that demands teams arrive on top form at the decisive moments, but with just a penalty, a slip, an adverse VAR ruling… you’re out. Real Madrid has deserved the cup these last three years, but it has fallen well short of leading the league in the last two seasons – last year, in fact, it finished 17 points from Barcelona. What does that tell us? That in the European tournament you are pitted against the big guns in 13 games, but La Liga is the measure of your strength, and the indication of your consistency. The example of Barcelona is striking, because the team only lost three times in the last two seasons in La Liga, but its fans tend to focus on disappointments such as when it was eliminated by Roma last year.
I fervently believe in cycles. In the 2016-17 season, when Real Madrid won La Liga, Zidane rotated the players, mixing keen substitutes with the main squad to great effect. You watched Barça back then and thought they could do with some new blood. Now the tables have turned. Real Madrid has given the responsibility to players in their thirties. It has a great team but it lacks that element that will step in to save the day. That was Cristiano Ronaldo’s role, but since he left no one has been able to step into his boots. And while at Barça, Leo Messi is holding the team together, Cristiano’s departure has acted as a warning.
For the last two years, Barça has been bringing on young, quality players such as Arthur, Dembélé and Lenglet, and also new talent, such as De Jong. It is clearly mapping out its future. Thanks to players such as Ter Stegen and Umtiti, the short- and medium-term is covered, while in the longer term there are other players who, when they come of age, will have spent considerable time at the team.
And the deserved credit for making this transition without any loss of competitive edge should go to Ernesto Valvede. He is a club man with clear ideas, who avoids panic and has ably managed the dressing room. Everyone has forgotten about the Dembélé incident by now. He has been charged with getting results and he has fought for two Liga titles with numbers that speak for themselves, not to mention the Copa del Rey last season. Meanwhile, there is the prospect this year of two trophies and even of winning the treble. I bet he gets them a double every year. Who wouldn’t?