Santiago Solari is a mere stopgap at Real, but neither has Valverde, recently handed a new contract, particularly impressed anyone with his leadership of Barça. Yet he is heading towards back-to-back titles.
When both Real and Barcelona have ageing squads and look pretty far off the pace in Europe, it begs the question: what is it that separates the two clubs?
The most obvious answer, of course, is Lionel Messi, whose magnificent hat-trick at Sevilla last weekend saved Barca from defeat – and took his tally to 25 goals and 11 assists in 23 La Liga games this season.
So we took to Football Manager 2019 to find out if the two clubs’ situations would be reversed if Messi had played for Real throughout 2018-19. The result is unlikely to surprise you.
When Messi decides to switch Barça for Real Madrid it is to be expected that the former would be plunged into existential crisis. The news story somewhat hilariously trumps Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus and brings an instant sense of grief to the city of Barcelona.
A stuttering start to the campaign is inevitable, and indeed Valverde’s side draw at Sevilla on the opening day before losing twice in September, to Girona and in ignominious circumstances at home to Real Betis.
Their form stabilises in October, but a winless November – two draws and a defeat – leaves Barcelona on a pitiful 19 points from 12 games.
Valverde somehow clings to his job, perhaps earning sympathy for having to soldier through the mourning of Catalonia, which right now is still in the stage of anger and denial.
By the end of November, Real Madrid have moved 15 points clear, their unbeaten start – 11 wins, one draw – defined by eight-goal Messi hitting the ground running. He clearly hasn’t been affected by the negative press.
The healing process begins in December as Barcelona, on the back of two straight wins, exact revenge in the bitterest of El Clasicos – winning 1-0 at the Bernabeu.
It’s a cathartic release that allows Valverde’s side to set aside the past, going on an unbeaten run in La Liga that lasts until mid-March.
However, defeat to Manchester United in the second round of the Champions League seems to dent their confidence once again and Barça pick up just one point from their next three league games. Suddenly even a top-four finish looks unlikely.
Real, meanwhile, merrily go from strength to strength: Messi keeps scoring and Los Blancos keep winning.
Their unbeaten streak finally comes to an end in a 1-0 defeat to Celta Vigo in February, but it’s a minor bump in the road as the European champions win the Club World Cup, as well as ease through to the last eight of the Champions League.
Lionel Messi turns Real Madrid from the real-life shambles into one of the most successful teams of all time, making the 2018-19 season the best in their history.
Real continue to brush teams aside domestically, and with the title already sewn up by the second El Clasico in April, the Barcelona fans are trolled horribly by Real… who leave Messi on the bench in a 1-1 at the Nou Camp. Barça don’t even get a chance to vent at their former hero.
Well rested, Messi plays a starring role in the Champions League, scoring an 88th-minute winner against Juventus in the quarter-finals.
Real then overturn a first-leg deficit to beat Manchester City in the semi-final, before beating Manchester United – the very team that knocked Barca out – 1-0 in the final to seal their fourth consecutive triumph.
Barcelona do get one final shot at hurting Messi, at preventing him from winning the Treble, as the clubs go head-to-head in the Copa del Rey final.
Real Madrid win 2-0. Messi scores the opener just 12 minutes in. It is utterly devastating. The results are conclusive. This experiment is over.
By Alex Keble