From crisis to topping La Liga: how Ernesto Valverde stabilised Barcelona

The calm and popular manager has put Lionel Messi centre stage while turning Neymar’s departure into an opportunity to recalibrate the team’s setup

At the start of the season Gerard Piqué admitted that for the first time he felt “inferior”. Barcelona had just lost the Super Cup: Real Madrid had scored five, Barcelona just one – and that was a penalty. Neymar had gone, 11 days after Piqué announced he was staying and 16 days since the vice-president said he was “200% sure” he wouldn’t leave. Coutinho hadn’t come yet and wouldn’t come at all. And nor had Marco Verratti, Héctor Bellerín, or even Ángel Di María. Iñigo Martínez was done then undone and in Nice, where “the walls shook”, Jean Michaël Seri “exploded”. In the editor’s office at El Mundo Deportivo, walls shook too, phones rang and, near midnight, presses stopped, a front page hurriedly changed from “Seri Day” to “No to Seri”. Seri said his “dream” had been “broken”; for Barça, the nightmare seemed never-ending.

The former president went to jail and the players call the current president Nobito, after a timid, naive and hapless cartoon character whose friend is a robot cat. When, that is, they don’t call him worse. Neymar called the board a “joke” and threatened to take them to court; the feeling is mutual. That very day, he was back in Barcelona posing, all smiles, with the team-mates and best mates he had left behind.

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