MADRID, June 2- When Barcelona’s players returned for their first pre-season session under new boss Luis Enrique no one held the bragging rights of coming back from Brazil a newly crowned world champion.
Nine months on and the Catalans star-studded squad is on the brink of the compensation of becoming the first side to win the treble of league, Cup and Champions League twice.
All 11 of the side that will start against Juventus in Saturday’s Champions League final suffered their share of World Cup disappointment.
The biggest humiliation was suffered by Barca’s six Spanish internationals, five of whom had won the World Cup four years previously in South Africa.
Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Pedro were sent packing after just two games in Brazil after heavy defeats by the Netherlands and Chile.
Yet, that pain has been Barca’s gain as significantly Pique, Busquets and Iniesta’s return to form in 2015 has played a huge role in Enrique’s men’s run of 28 wins from 34 games since a shock 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad in January.
All five had also been part of the Spanish squads at Euro 2012 and the Confederations Cup a year later and the rest enforced by early elimination combined with Enrique’s persistent rotation policy early in the season has paid dividends as Barca have arrived at the end of the campaign in prime physical shape.
However, the key to Barca’s brilliant campaign has been the remarkable 120 goals struck by the lethal front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
All three had to deal with heartbreak or, in Suarez’s case, shame in Brazil that left them hungry for vindication in the form of trophies.
Barca weren’t perturbed by the four-month ban slapped on Suarez for biting an opponent for the third time in his career as they splashed out a club record transfer fee to secure his services from Liverpool.
The Uruguayan has rewarded that faith with 24 goals and 24 assists despite a slow start to his first season at the Camp Nou after missing the opening two months of the campaign because of his ban.
More importantly, though, Suarez’s aggression and work-rate has combined perfectly with the playmaking ability and pace of Messi and Neymar respectively.
Neymar dealt with the immense pressure of bearing the burden of Brazil’s dreams for a sixth World Cup on home soil brilliantly last summer until a terrifying collision with Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zuniga ended his tournament at the quarter-final stage with two broken vertebrae in his back.
That blow may have been a blessing for the 23-year-old as it meant he was not one of the culprits in Brazil’s historic 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the semi-final.
Neymar recovered remarkably quickly to start the season in top form as he has surpassed Barca legends like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and Rivaldo best ever goalscoring numbers in a single campaign with 38 goals.
Yet, even Neymar’s feats have been cast into the shadows by Messi’s return to his best form.
“The truth is I started the season in a different way after what happened last year,” the four-time World Player of the Year said recently.
“I went through a difficult year for what happened off the field, the injuries and my performance.”
The frustration for Argentines watching their compatriot rip apart rivals week in, week out in recent months was that the World Cup came a year too early.
Messi scored twice, including a scarcely believable individual run past four Athletic Bilbao players to open the scoring in last weekend’s Copa del Rey final to take his record to 20 goals in 23 finals for Barcelona.
The one final goal that got away was a typical Messi left-footed effort that slipped inches past Manuel Neuer’s far post as Argentina were pipped 1-0 by Germany in the World Cup final.
Given the same chance again, current form suggests Messi is unlikely to misfire in Berlin as he looks to become the first man to score in three Champions League finals.