Friday, 17 May 2019

Who is Barcelona's Player of the Season?

The 2018-19 season proved to be another campaign of joy and despair in almost equal measure for Barcelona. The Catalans confirmed and even advanced their domination of domestic affairs over the last 12 months, wrapping up the title with time to spare while still dreaming of a fourth double in the last five seasons with the Copa del Rey final approaching.

Success in Europe, however, eluded Barca once more; and just like 2017-18, it was the manner of their Champions League exit as much as elimination that cut deep at Camp Nou.

Ernesto Valverde's men were shocked 4-0 by Liverpool in May's semi-final, throwing away a seemingly unassailable three-goal first-leg lead to miss out on a place in the decider. The shadow of Real Madrid's three consecutive Champions Leagues casts long over their rivals, meaning that the coming summer will likely be a tense one for all involved with the team.

There should be no need to panic, however. That Liverpool defeat was just the fifth suffered by Barca in all competitions, an astounding record over 56 games.

The Catalans remain one of the most consistent, proficient teams in the world, with the presence of perhaps the greatest talent ever to play the game of football a constant plus when the chips are down.

Lionel Messi has been outstanding as usual, but he is not the only man to stand out. Marc Andre ter Stegen continues to show he deserves to be considered among the world's elite goalkeepers, while young Arthur enjoyed a stunning debut campaign to make the absence of the great Andres Iniesta a little less painful.

The following three players, though, stood out a little brighter than most, leading Goal to name them Barcelona's top players of the 2018-19 season.

3. Gerard Pique

Often as famous for his antics off the pitch and in the press as his performances on it, this season saw Pique buckle down and focus on leading his beloved Barca from the back. In difficult circumstances the centre-back rose to the challenge and was a talisman for his club from start to finish.

Pique's task was complicated over the course of 2018-19 by the lack of a regular, seasoned defensive partner. Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen both suffered a nightmare year plagued by injury, leaving rookie Clement Lenglet as his deputy in his first season after transferring from Sevilla.

That new-look defence got off to a rocky start, with Barca shipping two goals or more on several occasions. But with Pique's help things began to stabilise around December, leading to a formidable run of form that put the Catalans clear at the top of La Liga and in a winning position over Atletico and Real Madrid they never looked likely to relinquish.

In front of goal, too, Pique proved decisive for his club in more than one match.

The defender notched seven goals over the course of the season, making him the fifth most prolific player in the entire Barca squad. Some of those strikes were crucial, helping to seal victory over PSV in the Champions League as well as salvaging a point against Girona early on in the season.

The lasting image of Pique this season will be marked by that incredible Anfield collapse, even if the centre-back was far from Barca's prime defensive culprit for the debacle. But focusing on just one match would be misleading: forced by circumstance to steer the backline alongside a host of partners, he proved himself equal to the challenge and enjoyed one of his finest seasons yet for the club.

2. Luis Suarez

By this point almost all of us are used to Luis Suarez's sluggish starts to a new campaign. But after he managed to hit the target just three times in his opening 11 games, looking overweight and unfit, the Uruguayan found himself firmly under the microscope.

Now 32, the forward gave the first signs that he might be struggling at the highest level. But while those doubts are by no means entirely dissipated, Suarez stormed back once more to show that he at least still has a future at Barcelona beyond the current season.

Suarez smashed 21 goals in 31 starts for his club in La Liga, a tally that while far behind Messi's prodigious record was key to their second straight title.

He also delivered when it most counted, at least domestically. A hat-trick at Camp Nou destroyed Real Madrid in a 5-1 blowout that cost coach Julen Lopetegui his post, before he hit two more to lead Barca to Copa del Rey victory in front of a seething Bernabeu crowd.

The one competition in which Suarez failed to shine was the Champions League. His solitary goal in this season's tournament broke the deadlock against Liverpool, a typically instinctive one-touch finish; but overall the forward will again be disappointment with his contribution in Europe.

That blip aside, he proved that he still possesses a brilliant scoring touch. But the question remains: will the 2018-19 season show he still has plenty to offer, or was it the final flourish from a striker who is steadily declining?

1. Lionel Messi

La Liga's top scorer. The Champions League top scorer. The man who makes the impossible look positively mundane. Lionel Messi practically was Barcelona over the course of the 2018-19 season, the man who succeeded Andres Iniesta as captain and who made everything click for the Catalans time and time again.

As he approaches his 32nd birthday, the little Argentine wizard shows no sign of slowing down. He has hit an incredible 32 Liga goals in just 27 starts and needs just two more to break the half century in all competitions, the sixth time he will have passed that daunting landmark for his club.

“We know who Leo is. The thing is that he never stops surprising you,” Valverde beamed after one of Messi's finest performances of the last 12 months, a virtuoso two-goal display to down Liverpool that included a free-kick that appeared to defy the very laws of physics.

“He was decisive yet again and he pushed us to take this victory.”

That victory of course proved insufficient at Anfield, despite Messi's efforts to keep his side in the tie. The Argentine teed up his team-mates on several occasions only to see them squander the opportunity to net an away goal that surely would have put the semi-final beyond question, despite fierce marking from Liverpool throughout the 90 minutes.
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Having proved Barca's match-winner against Lyon, Manchester United, in the first leg against Liverpool and in countless Liga encounters, Messi could not quite pull his team through. In a demonstration of the short-sighted idiocy of modern football fans, that inexplicably led to a small section of the Barca support booing him at Liverpool airport after the match.

The Catalans, like many in his native Argentina and indeed across the world of football, take his abilities for granted. What better example of that phenomenon than his fifth-place finish in this year's Ballon d'Or vote, a travesty however one analyses the thought processes that led to such a snub.

Messi as always was unruffled by that slight. He merely put his head down and set out to show once more that he has no peers in professional football. After yet another campaign of almost infallible brilliance one conclusion is inescapable: Barcelona and the sport as a whole will miss him dearly when he is gone.

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