Trebles and Quintuples

Since Manchester United’s memorable 1998-99 season, no club has since laid claim to the proper “treble” in subsequent outings (“treble” being defined as the rightful champions of the UEFA Champions’ League, domestic league title and domestic cup competition).

While Liverpool fans had reason to celebrate three titles two seasons later, references to this accomplishment as a “treble” is noted with a disclaimer that said treble is really a “cup” treble (the UEFA Cup, League Cup and FA Cup).

For much of this season, a lot of discussion has been generated as to whether Manchester United could top their 98-99 feat with a “quintuple” of honors.

The last I counted of potential silverware for Manchester United was seven, but I understand that the Community Shield may not qualify to name itself as an honor in this illustrious series (perhaps with some justification as the match is played more as a curtain raiser for the Premiership season with players worrying more about sustaining season ending injuries).

The next possible trophy was then the European Super Cup but a more determined Zenit St. Petersburg side won the night and that possibility was out of the picture (but again, I am left wondering had Sir Alex Ferguson’s men lifted that trophy in Monaco whether this would count to the overall tally seeing how the match is the “curtain raiser” for the European club competitions).

Well earned victories in the FIFA World Club Championship and the League Cup were the first two recognized scalps in this quest for a glorious five titles. That bid shortly came to an end this past weekend after Everton scraped by on penalties in the FA Cup semi-final and, mathematically, the quest dwindles down to winning four.

You get the sense that with such an emphasis on this word “quintuple” over the past season that anything short was going to an abject failure for United. Yet the fact that Manchester United could end this season potentially with one more trophy than they had in the 98-99 season has been strangely received in an anti-climactic way.

While the focus has been on this “quintuple” holy grail, I almost forgot that over in the “blaugrana”quarters of Barcelona (i.e. the vast majority of the city minus the enclave that entertains Espanyol fans), there is a growing sense that a “treble” might be in the cards for FC Barcelona. Yet there doesn’t exist this open discussion amongst Barcelona fans about prospects of finishing the season as European champions, Spanish champions and Copa del Rey champions.

I’m not sure if it’s superstition or a sense of humility that has forced its way into Barcelona fans in light of the last two seasons ending with less silver in the Camp Nou museum trophy cabinets than the two coins in my pocket, but there appear to be more announcements coming from Chelsea about their title prospects under the current Hiddink regime than any talk of a potential treble from los blaugranas players or management.

Perhaps when the football on the pitch speaks for itself, there is little need to make announcements but one also does get the feeling that any discussion pertaining to trophies beyond the sphere of the present is somewhat taboo at the Camp Nou.

Any sense of complacency in Barça might have been addressed in that patchy streak Barça suffered toward the end of February and early March. Another 4-0 mauling of yet another opponent, Sevilla in the league last night, provide indications that Barça might be back to their old ways. Yet with the upcoming Champions’ League semi-final against Chelsea, I was quickly reminded of the last time a “treble” loomed in Barcelona’s horizons.

In the 1999-2000 season, a season after Manchester United’s treble season and when this word “treble” became a fashionable part of football diction, Barcelona had narrowly dispensed with, guess who, a pre-Abramovich Chelsea side at the Camp Nou in dramatic fashion. A 3-0 lead at Stamford Bridge was dented by a Luis Figo goal that required Barça to win 2-0 at Camp Nou. The choreography prior to the match had the fans hold up cards that spelled out “2-0” in the pre-game formalities. At the end of 90 minutes the score was 3-1 and extra-time produced two more goals for Barcelona ending the match at 5-1 and utter euphoria.

And slowly, despite mounting a multiple front campaign first in the league against a revived Deportivo La Coruña side, hell bent on avenging their concession of the league some six seasons before in the league, in the Copa del Rey and in the Champions League, the talk of ‘treble’ became more and more widespread. After all, if Manchester United could come to the Camp Nou a year before and place the crowning third jewel on their treble crown, then this team with Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert, Josep Guardiola and co would be able to do the same.

But ultimately, it was a season that ended with absolutely nothing. Depor managed to avenge that tragic 1994 season that gifted Barça their fourth consecutive league win and claimed their first and currently solitary league title. Valencia did away with Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions’ League. In the Copa del Rey, a FIFA international break stripped Barcelona of their international players and forced them to take the pitch against eventual runners-up Atletico Madrid with less than the required number of players to dress. Barça forfeited the match and surrendered any chance of a single trophy with this move (ironically led by now manager Josep Guardiola).

Having this sense of history in perspective, it may be all well that Barcelona simply concentrate on handling a very improved and always difficult Chelsea (post-Abramovich) side in the semi-finals this coming week. While that victory against Sevilla restored Barcelona’s six point cushion at the top of the table, the crucial league deciding fixture will be Barcelona’s visit to Real Madrid on May 3, 2009. Ten days later at Valencia’s Mestalla, Barcelona are scheduled to play Cup-specialist Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey.

Mind you in this context of “quintuple” or “treble”we appear to cast judgment on a club’s achievements in an “all or nothing” approach. Logically if Barcelona win the Champions’ League, then Manchester United’s season goes from the “quintuple” to (what appears as of April 23, 2009) a “treble” with an asterisk (to distinguish from the 98-99 treble and also so Liverpool fans aren’t aggrieved at my perceived slight to their 2000-01 season). Likewise if Chelsea prevail over two legs against Barça, and if Barça still manages to fend off Real Madrid’s surge for the league and Athletic Bilbao in the cup final, Barça will achieve a feat it hasn’t done since the 1997-98 season: the Spanish double.

Yet in our world of “trebles” and now the inflated “quintuple” or “septuplet” (if you counted my tally of the Community Shield and the European Super Cup), we live in an age where a two or three trophy season can still be viewed as a “failed” season. Imagine that.

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