Never once in 90 years in Spain’s La Liga has FC Barcelona, or any other club, gone undefeated over an entire season. Barca has won the domestic double, including the league and Copa del Rey titles, just eight times.
In Ernesto Valverde’s maiden season in charge of the Catalan giants, he’s slated to accomplish both. Nevertheless, it might not be enough to secure his job for another year.
According to Barca-centric Spanish sports paper Mundo Deportivo, via AS, the Barca board gave Valverde an ultimatum: win the double or be fired. Such was the board’s ire over the collapse to AS Roma in the Champions League quarterfinals, when Barca managed to squander a 4-1 first leg lead. That made it three seasons in a row that the Catalans had failed to advance past that stage, two-thirds of which weren’t Valverde’s fault, of course.
Valverde, in turn, is said to be considering quitting, according to that same report. He has a season left on his contract, with an option for another. He’d be the second recent manager to leave after just a year, with current Atlanta United coach Tata Martino having done the same after a trophy-less 2013-14 campaign. But Valverde would have compiled a historic record before his exit.
Last Sunday, Valverde’s side absolutely smashed Sevilla 5-0 in the Copa del Rey final. A week later, Barcelona clinched its 25th La Liga title with a win at Deportivo La Coruna. And if Barca staves off defeat four more times, including an El Clasico against Real Madrid on May 6, it will break new ground in Spain by going undefeated.
(Barca enjoyed some good fortune in its unbeaten run. In four of its eight ties, it scored an equalizer in the 82nd minute or later.)
Yet here’s the rub. In Pep Guardiola’s first season, 2008-09, Barca won its first-ever treble, adding the Champions League trophy to its domestic dominance. When he left in 2012 and was succeeded by his assistant, Tito Vilanova, the latter won the league in his first year as well. Vilanova had to resign after a year because of the cancer that would claim his life, and was succeeded by Martino, who won nothing and was swiftly shuffled out the door, ostensibly voluntarily. Then came Luis Enrique, who also won the treble in his first year — and the double in his second year.
The bar is impossibly high. Valverde winning the double — a banner year for most any club, including arch-rivals Real Madrid — is simply unremarkable because it was done two seasons ago and the year before that as well.
Never mind that Valverde has done it with a diminished and aging team. The spine of the dynasty is decaying. Xavi is long gone. Andres Iniesta is leaving. Javier Mascherano has already left. Lionel Messi has turned 30. Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique are 31. Sergio Busquets turns 30 this summer. History suggests their declines are imminent. At the start of the season, Suarez’s downturn looked well underway, before his form recovered. And the attacking heir apparent, Neymar, left last summer — worse still, he could conceivably turn up at Real next season.
What’s more, the legendary La Masia academy has run dry. For the first time in years, no youth product is in line to take over a significant position, let alone become another star. The Catalans have made savvy additions over the last two transfer windows in Nelson Semedo, Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, but there’s just no replacing the homegrown generation that’s slowly aging out.
Yet Valverde has overcome all that. And still it might not be enough because he won’t win a treble, or come particularly close. If his job is indeed on the line, the towering expectations, the sheer impossibility of the standard, will have claimed a manager for no other reason than he was merely very good. Not to mention record-setting. The club has grown so accustomed to winning one of the world’s best leagues, and has become so casual about setting highly improbable records, that it only looks at the trophies not won.
And even if the reports are untrue and Valverde’s tenure is secure, the mere fact that there’s some credibility to them makes the same point.
Because at Barca, you have to win. And you have to win all the time. And you have to win all the time while adhering to the club’s house style. Like Martino — and, at times, Enrique — Valverde hasn’t always done that. Sometimes the soccer isn’t quite so expansive. On certain days, Barca doesn’t even hog all the possession. Only at Barca is that a stain on a shimmering season.
However Valverde’s summer plays out, a supernova season, perhaps the first undefeated campaign in La Liga history, will be overshadowed by Barca’s failure to win it in Europe.
Because unless you win it all, there’s just no winning in Barcelona.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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