Enrique on the brink of history
Enrique set to emulate Pep's Treble in maiden season at Barcelona
ATLETICO MADRID 0
(Lionel Messi 65)
Pep Guardiola casts a long shadow at the Nou Camp.
His legendary status at Barcelona was carved over a playing career that married finesse with tenacity, and then later cemented in four glorious years that saw him coach the team to the pinnacle of football.
Yesterday morning (Singapore time), Luis Enrique took one small but assured step towards writing his own destiny. He led the team to a 1-0 win over defending champions Atletico Madrid to land the Spanish La Liga crown.
One down, two to go.
If he follows up the league triumph with the Copa del Rey and the Champions League title, he will emulate his former Barca teammate Guardiola in winning the Treble in his debut season with the Catalan club.
Not bad for a coach who has been in the hot seat for only 10 months, and had taken on the job on the back of the club's first trophy-less season in six years.
That Enrique (below) is on the cusp of something so remarkable is astounding, given how things were going earlier in the season. The 45-year-old Spaniard is a confident and strong-minded man. When he took the reins, he immediately set about doing things his way.
Never mind the constant scrutiny.
He chopped and changed his line-ups regularly, not sparing even the biggest stars. Results were not satisfactory by the club's high standards, and arch rivals Real Madrid were pulling ahead.
Things came to a head in January, when Barca superstar Lionel Messi clashed with him for not starting him in the 1-0 defeat by Real Sociedad. The Argentinian wasn't the only disgruntled one.
Those said to be unhappy with Enrique's authoritarian style included Gerard Pique, Neymar and Ivan Rakitic.
That loss, however, proved to be the turning point for Barca and Enrique.
Whatever Enrique pulled off behind the scenes after that loss worked, and the jammed pistons in the Barca engine began to fire.
Key to their success has been his modification of the Barca mantra.
Ditching the short-passing game that brought Guardiola so much success from 2008 to 2012, Enrique introduced a more direct style.
Barca's attacking trident began to thrive.
Messi recaptured the form that saw him clinch four straight Ballon d'Or awards from 2009 to 2012. The delightful Neymar started to find his Brazilian beat, and Luis Suarez quickly consigned his difficult start at the club to history.
Their telepathic understanding on the pitch is a sight to behold.
The trio combined for a devastating total of 115 goals to erase the previous club record of 100 goals scored by the strike force of Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o in the Treble-winning 2008/09 season.
It is Enrique's ability to get the terrific trio of stars to play for one another that is perhaps his biggest accomplishment.
For a measure of how tricky that is, just look at Real Madrid's fragmented frontline.
The Treble is not won yet, as Enrique was quick to point out amid their league title celebrations.
But he was also already speaking of a "new era".
The way Barca have been dismantling their opponents for the past five months, who would dare disagree with him?
Barca ride on messi wave
Spain's biggest selling sports daily Marca summed it up in its headline after Barcelona wrapped up a fifth La Liga title in seven years and their 23rd overall yesterday morning (Singapore time): "Messi's League".
The Argentina forward scored a typically brilliant goal to secure a 1-0 win at Atletico Madrid exactly a year after last season's champions pipped Barca to the title with a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp on the final day of the campaign.
Barca's latest triumph was the first part of a possible treble of Champions League, domestic league and Cup crowns, which Barca became the only Spanish club to achieve in 2008-09 under Pep Guardiola.
Messi's goal was his 41st in 37 La Liga appearances this term, four behind top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Real Madrid side are four points adrift of their arch rivals with one game left.
Messi has also made an incredible 17 assists and it has been his scintillating form since the turn of the year, after he broke the La Liga scoring record in November, that has been the main driving force behind Barca's treble charge.
They meet Juventus in the Champions League final on June 6, a week after hosting Athletic Bilbao for the Copa del Rey final, an impressive achievement for coach Luis Enrique in his first season in charge.
"Right now I am thinking about all those who have helped us win this title, without exception," Luis Enrique said after the match at the Calderon.
"There are still two titles up for grabs and then we will know what mark we can award ourselves, but winning this league makes us very happy," added the former Barca and Spain midfielder.
Barca's defence, marshalled by Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, has also played its part, conceding a mere 19 goals in 37 La Liga games, while Real leaked 35.
But club talisman Messi predictably dominated the front pages after the 27-year-old again proved decisive when it mattered most.
Exchanging passes with Pedro, he found the tiny amount of space he needed in the crowd of defenders and clipped a precise shot into the corner to make it A Messi's League.
The league title could now just be the launching pad for another prolonged period of success and a potential treble this season.
"I hope it can be a new era. We have to deserve to win the other titles. We have two finals left and we need to show we are better than the opponents," he said. "We started 10 months ago with many changes at the club and coming off a season having not won anything. "We knew it would be a season of transition and we tried to do our best. We have two titles still to play for, but we already have the one that rewards consistency." - Wire Services.
We knew it would be a season of transition and we tried to do our best. We have two titles still to play for, but we already have the one that rewards consistency.
— Barcelona coach Luis Enrique
Messi changed everything in a second.
— Atletico striker Fernando Torres about Barcelona’s goal