February 5, 2018 / 2:01 PM / 4 months ago

Soccer: Resilient Barcelona set sights on record league start

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Luis Enrique’s time at Barcelona was characterised by a team that rolled with the punches, attacking with abandon and rarely controlling a game, but his successor Ernesto Valverde has gone back to basics.

Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Espanyol vs FC Barcelona - RCDE Stadium, Barcelona, Spain - February 4, 2018 Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in action with Espanyol’s Victor Sanchez REUTERS/Albert Gea

Since taking charge last year the coach has made Barcelona a far more solid side at the back, tough to break down and more resilient.

Real Madrid thrashed Barcelona 5-1 over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup in August after the Catalans were rocked by Neymar’s departure, but since they have only lost once since.

A much-changed Barcelona side were defeated 1-0 by Espanyol in the King’s Cup quarter-final first leg in Cornella, their only loss in any of the three major competitions this season.

At a waterlogged, rain-swept RCDE Stadium on Sunday they looked like suffering the same fate again but dug deep in the mud to muster a late equaliser, headed home by a gleeful Gerard Pique to level the scores at 1-1.

The defender’s late intervention means Barcelona have gone 22 league games unbeaten in La Liga, a club record opening to a season, and can set their sights on Spain’s best start of 32 games without defeat set by Real Sociedad in 1979-80.

The Basque side lost their 33rd league game, against Sevilla, and no others but were pipped to the title by Real Madrid.

That will not happen to Barcelona this season, even if Valverde’s side do slip up, with their arch-rivals Madrid trailing them by 19 points.

Although Barcelona do not dominate games with the ease they did in the Pep Guardiola years, during which they set their previous record of 21 games unbeaten at the start of the season in 2009-10, Valverde’s side is much better at keeping control.

Neymar’s departure is a big reason for that, with Valverde utilising a fourth midfielder behind two forwards, instead of a three-pronged attacking line.

“(Neymar’s departure) was a little earthquake because the trident was gone and Valverde, who had just arrived, would be left without him,” Barcelona vice-president Jordi Mestre told Diario Sport.

“A very solid Barca (was left). We have a lot of quality, experience, talent and youth. And on top of all that, we still have (Lionel) Messi.”

The Argentine forward was rested against Espanyol but came on from the bench to set up Pique’s goal with a perfectly placed free kick.

With Messi and Suarez in lethal form up front and Valverde’s organised defensive unit shutting teams out at the back, it will take something special to beat the Catalans.

Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Espanyol vs FC Barcelona - RCDE Stadium, Barcelona, Spain - February 4, 2018 Barcelona’s Gerard Pique celebrates with Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez after scoring their first goal REUTERS/Albert Gea

Editing by Ed Osmond

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