By E.I Ihegwuruike
FC Barcelona failed to continue their dominance of the Copa del Rey, leaving plenty of questions about the future of their coach, Ernesto Valverde.
Having won four in a row, with this their sixth consecutive appearance in the final, the Catalans have finally let the King’s Cup slip out of their hands last night.
A considerable section of the club’s support will be wondering if Ernesto Valverde’s reign will end too, as their meek surrender of the trophy in a 2-1 defeat by Valencia on Saturday left an extremely bitter taste in the mouth of ‘Barcelonismo’ – the club and its fans.
Even though president Josep Maria Bartomeu and, perhaps more importantly, star player Lionel Messi, publicly backed the coach to continue in the week, there can be few who truly believe Barcelona will progress next season under Valverde.
As crazy as it seems to sack a coach who has won two league titles in two seasons, the question remains – is he good enough for Barcelona?
The Catalans demand the Champions League and after two identical collapses in consecutive years, followed up by this capitulation against Valencia – with the exception of the battling Messi, who fought until the end – what Valverde is producing is not good enough.
“As long as La Liga title is won, I always say it’s a good season, but the expectations were for a much better year,” Gerard Pique told Teledeporte after the game.
“We leave with the bittersweet taste because we could have been better.”
There are excuses for this defeat, with two of the theoretical best front three, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, out injured, while the doom and gloom from Anfield still has the club pinned to the floor, but that won’t ease Barcelona’s pain.
Valencia coach Marcelino’s game plan had Barcelona on the back foot from the start, with Valverde’s many critics only able to shrug and say ‘I told you so’ as Los Che dominated.
They might have scored after five minutes when Clement Lenglet’s wild and careless attempt at a clearance found Rodrigo Moreno, who rounded Jasper Cillessen, but Gerard Pique was alert enough to slide in and clear off his own goal-line.
But it wasn’t a surprise when Valencia did move ahead, slicing Barcelona open down the left flank, with Jose Luis Gaya crossing for Kevin Gameiro to slam home in the 22nd minute.
Eleven minutes later and Rodrigo made it two, heading home from point-blank range as Barcelona floundered.
If Nelson Semedo should have done better for the first goal, Jordi Alba was culpable for the second, ringing up his 300th Barcelona match on a night he would rather now forget.
But just blaming the full-backs isn’t sufficient or fair. There must be questions asked about how little the team managed to create going forward, how Messi was offered no support by Philippe Coutinho and Sergi Roberto.
And perhaps more pertinently to the debate about Barcelona’s style, or lack of it under Valverde, why Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arthur were unable to dominate midfield – or even hold their weight.
Valverde acted swiftly, by his standards certainly, throwing on Malcom and Arturo Vidal for Arthur and Semedo at half-time. Somehow Coutinho survived – perhaps the coach forgot he was even playing.
Barcelona were brighter and Malcom in particular linked well with Messi. One exchange between the two led to the Argentine star hitting the post.
It was an extraordinary effort from the No 10, with the outside of his boot, a shot which drifted lazily towards the top corner but missed it by inches.
And it was no surprise when Messi was the man to pull Barcelona back into the game, a tap-in from close range after Lenglet’s header was parried, his 51st goal of the season.
Even though Barcelona’s campaign will remain stained by their Champions League failure – not only that they failed, but the brutal, humiliating way in which they failed – Messi on a personal level was as impressive as ever, perhaps even more so.
The Argentine No 10 keeps evolving, keeps improving and keeps shining, head and shoulders above anyone else in his own team, in the Spanish league, in the world.
Messi’s 36 La Liga goals earned him the Pichichi award for the top scorer for a joint record sixth time, but as the player said on Friday, he doesn’t care about that and his mind keeps flitting back to Anfield.
Now Valencia have inflicted a new painful defeat and both Messi and Bartomeu were left ashen-faced at full time.
Both, perhaps, wondering about Barcelona’s future – in particular Valverde’s.
FROM THE TOWER OF TRUTH