In Summary
  • Beat a Valencia side still struggling even to make La Liga's top four and all three major trophies would be theirs. It seemed within touching distance.
  • Instead, 41 almost faultless weeks have been undone in less than three.

SEVILLE, SPAIN

The backing from Barcelona's club president Josep Maria Bartomeu came but it was not as convincing as before.

Last week he said coach Ernesto Valverde was "trusted completely" but as Valencia's players danced on the pitch at the Estadio Benito Villamarin, tossing the Copa del Rey between them, his support felt more reserved.

"Ernesto has a contract for next season," Bartomeu said. "He's the coach. I don't think this defeat is his fault."

When asked about Valverde's future on Friday, Lionel Messi indicated he wanted him to stay, the captain's approval perhaps even more significant than that of the president.

"I honestly believe the boss has done an impressive job during his time in charge," said Messi. "I would like him to continue."

But that was before the 2-1 final defeat to Valencia on Saturday, which, despite a second-half surge, inspired by Messi and his goal 17 minutes before the end, leaves a title-winning season swamped in disappointment.

Valverde has never been loved at Camp Nou, the question marks hanging over him to do with issues less tangible than results.

After all, in La Liga, they finished this season 19 points ahead of Real Madrid, whom they beat by an aggregate score of 10-2 over four matches, and 11 clear of Atletico.

Instead, his sceptics complain about style, seen as overly-rigid, and suitability, a 55-year-old in charge of his sixth club, sensible and statesmanlike, but lacking the fizz for a coach of Barcelona.

The two arguments are linked and, until now, lacked evidence to give them weight. But perhaps doubts can be self-fulfilling and when Rodrigo headed in Valencia's second on Saturday night, the players may have begun to believe them too.

"It has been a good year," said Gerard Pique. "But we expected to do a much better year. The taste is bitter-sweet."

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