The standards are high at Barcelona. Finishing second in the league last season was not good enough and manager Luis Enrique paid the price. In his place came the untested Ernesto Valverde, whose arrival was followed by the acrimonious departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and the failure to capture Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool.
Yet seven months on, Barcelona are once again ruling the roost in Spain. Eleven points clear of Atlético Madrid, they have led the way in the league since their third game of the season and are also through to the final of the Copa del Rey and the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Their draw against Roma gives them a great chance of making the semi-finals, and given their current form, Valverde’s team look a good bet in all three competitions for sports fans who enjoy sports betting online.
Valverde has set about one of the most pressurised jobs in football with admirable calm and patience, correcting the imbalance in the team that had crept in under Enrique. Whereas the previous manager had set up the side to feed the front three of Messi, Suárez and Neymar, Valverde has created a more balanced approach, giving Suárez the dominant forward role, easing off on the pressing play, and organising the defence.
He also seems to be adept at getting the best out of his players. Messi, in particular, has been in vintage form, scoring 35 goals in 43 appearances, and giving a series of masterclass performances, including his game-winning effort against Chelsea in the Champions League.
However, other players have also come to the fore. The signing of veteran midfielder Paulinho was not greeted with enthusiasm in Barcelona, but the Brazilian has been a revelation. His work rate and ability to get into the box has taken some of the pressure off the Barcelona forward line and their attacking full-backs, and has added balance to the midfield.
Meanwhile, Ousmane Dembélé, the replacement for Neymar, has also begun to find his feet. After a series of false starts, he played well in a league game against Málaga before starring in the 3-0 victory over Chelsea in which he helped to create the first goal and scored the second, before making a crucial challenge on Marcos Alonso early in the second half.
With Messi as imperious as ever, Suárez providing a deadly foil and the best of Coutinho yet to come, it is reasonable to ask the question: can anything stop Barça?
The decline of Real Madrid this season has left Barcelona largely unchallenged domestically. That isn’t the case in Europe, of course, and with experienced opponents such as Bayern Munich and Juventus still in the competition, along with in-form and improving teams Liverpool and Manchester City, Barça will be taking nothing for granted. However, there is no doubt that the Catalan giants are back to their best this season and it will take something special to stop them dominating on all fronts, in Europe and in Spain.