Madrid (AFP) – Midfield legend Andres Iniesta is set to quit while arch rivals Real Madrid are prepping for a 13th Champions League, yet Ernesto Valverde insists his Barcelona side are still the best team in Spain.
A win at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday would see Barcelona seal their 25th La Liga title, and first since 2016, with four games to spare.
Having wrapped up the first part of a league and Cup double with a 5-0 Copa del Rey final rout of Sevilla last week, Valverde insisted Saturday: “When the league started in August, we were all on the start line and we all know that, at the finish, it’s the best team who wins.
“The best team of the lot wins La Liga.”
He added: “We’ve been working hard from day one, and now we have a few opportunities (to win the league) but if possible we want to wrap it up tomorrow (Sunday).”
Iniesta’s imminent departure from Barcelona at the end of the campaign has given Valverde a headache about how to re-balance his team once the 33-year-old midfield maestro finally quits the Camp Nou.
And Barca’s failure to reach the last four of Europe’s premier club competition for the third consecutive season — while Real bid for another final appearance following a 2-1 semi-final, first leg win over Bayern Munich — has led to speculation about Valverde’s future.
But Valverde, who suggested Barcelona, like many other Catalonians, were affected by the “difficult” circumstances of a protracted but failed pro-independence movement, is hoping to honour his contract, which expires at the end of 2019: “When you arrive at such a big club you face big tests every week, every day in training.
“But up until now it’s been an extraordinary experience and I hope it will continue.
“There have been great times, not so great times and difficult circumstances off the pitch including the general (political) situation in Catalonia this past year.
“But we’ve all tried to overcome those difficulties and move on. That’s why I’m particularly happy about how things turned out.
“During the season we always hear talk about the coach in one way or another, but this is all speculation. I have a contract for next season and I’m happy here.”
Unearthing another Iniesta would go a long way in making amends for Barca’s sorry Champions League quarter-final exit to Roma earlier this month.
But Valverde does not expect to find another player with Iniesta’s vast array of silky-smooth playmaking skills any time soon.
“Iniesta is irreplacable, it’s difficult to imagine that one day another player will do as well as Iniesta,” said Valverde.
“When such a special player leaves, you have to find a different balance in the team, different ways to play.
“The style of our game is defined and is very clear. But no one can give us what Iniesta gives us.”