Barcelona 2018-19: How Valverde's men continued their LaLiga dominance
For the eighth time in the past 11 seasons, Barcelona are LaLiga champions.
The era of Lionel Messi is proving relentlessly painful for Real Madrid, who have a considerable gap to close as Zinedine Zidane eyes a close-season overhaul.
Bolstered by his leading man's astounding brilliance, there is perhaps an impression that all Ernesto Valverde had to do this time around was keep his Barca team on track, while Madrid lurched from one implosion to the next.
And what of Atletico Madrid? With Antoine Griezmann locked into a fresh contract and an impressive few months in the transfer market to bolster them, this felt like prime time for Diego Simeone's men to throw off their underdogs' tag. And yet, a genuine title challenge never materialised.
Here, we look at some key moments in how another Barcelona march to glory played out.
Post-Kiev chaos at Madrid
A third European title in as many seasons gave Real Madrid reason to crow in the face of Barca's domestic dominance last time around. But Zidane's shock departure after defeating Liverpool in the Champions League final – a step away from the limelight that would ultimately prove short-lived – set in motion a destabilising chain of events.
Julen Lopetegui was appointed without the Royal Spanish Football Federation's (RFEF) consent and the future Madrid head coach was dumped out of his then role in charge of Spain ahead of their first World Cup match. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a stunning hat-trick in Portugal's 3-3 draw with La Roja in Sochi, but he would never do so again in Madrid colours. The club's all-time record goalscorer joined Juventus in July and a lack of cohesion behind the scenes contributed to no replacement coming in.
Stuttering start from the heavyweights
Barca initially flew out of the blocks – an 8-2 rout of newly promoted Huesca one of four consecutive wins to start the season. But Valverde's men drew three and lost one of their subsequent four.
Atletico did not exactly capitalise and had an identical record after eight games, as Sevilla led the way by a point.
FULL TIME: Barça win 8-2 against Huesca. Two for Messi, two for Suárez, one for Alba, Dembélé and Rakitic and an own goal from Pulido. Cucho Hernández and Gallar for the visitors.— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) 2 September 2018
Madrid crash to Clasico humiliation
Lopetegui won four of five undefeated games to start the season, but the fifth of those – a 1-0 home triumph over Espanyol – was the last time he tasted victory in LaLiga with Real Madrid. A 3-0 thumping at Sevilla started the slump and a goalless draw in El Derbi against Atleti being followed by losses to Alaves and Levante meant the vultures were circling by the time Madrid arrived at Camp Nou in late October.
Barca were ruthless in the first Clasico of the season, with Luis Suarez hitting a hat-trick in a 5-1 victory. By the time he made the matchball his own in the 83rd-minute, Lopetegui's sacking and his exit from a second dream job in the space of four months was inevitable.
Draws undermine Atletico
Simeone's men, miserly at the back as always, failed to secure back-to-back LaLiga wins in either October or November. Stalemates with Villarreal, Leganes and Girona were all damaging in their own way, while Ousmane Dembele's last-gasp leveller to snatch a 1-1 draw for Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano in November felt like a key moment – coming as it did on the back of a 4-3 home loss to Real Betis for the champions. Barca have not tasted defeat in LaLiga since.
Solari revival snuffed out
As quickly as Santiago Solari appeared to be making claims on a long-term stay at Madrid, his reign crumbled to dust in a similar manner to Lopetegui's. A defiant 3-1 Derbi win at the Wanda on February 9 effectively ended Atletico's title hopes and marked five LaLiga wins in a row.
Strugglers Girona checked that run by coming from behind to win 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu before Solari's week of no return – back-to-back defeats against Barca in the Copa del Rey and LaLiga before Ajax ended Madrid's recent Champions League monopoly. All those humbling loses occurred on home soil and it was time for Florentino Perez and Zidane to rebuild some bridges.
Barca find the extra gear when needed
As recriminations flowed in the captial, Barca simply got on with the job. No, this is not a must-watch team in the manner of some of its predecessors and, yes, there is a growing sense of over-reliance upon Messi. But whenever Valverde has needed his team and talisman to find the extra gear, they invariably have.
A Messi hat-trick as Barcelona twice came from behind to win 4-2 at Sevilla and two goals in stoppage time to snatch a 4-4 draw at Villarreal earlier this month showcased the style and steel that means a third LaLiga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble in 11 seasons remains in play.