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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Barcelona set to break club record to highlight work of Ernesto Valverde in uniting Primera Liga leaders

Barcelona aim to break their own Primera Liga record when they entertain fellow Catalans Girona on Saturday evening.

Ernesto Valverde’s side extended their unbeaten league streak to 31 games with Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar, equalling the run of Pep Guardiola’s side in the 2010-11 season.

Then, perhaps the greatest ever Barca team were undefeated from game three of the league fixtures to game 33, winning 27 and drawing four. That side took the league with ease and they won the Uefa Champions League too.

Barca players and aficionados still rate their victory over Manchester United in the Wembley Stadium final as their peak performance.

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That unbeaten league run came in a single season, but this is the work of two managers. Luis Enrique, whose side won their final seven league games of last season but who still finished second to Real Madrid, started it.

Enrique is currently enjoying life away from football in his home by the beach south of Barcelona. He is a keen sportsman who is especially into cycling.

He is not actively seeking to coach at any clubs – but he will listen to offers and has been strongly linked with Chelsea for next season. He is also continuing to have English lessons and can now speak it.

Enrique’s replacement Ernesto Valverde walked into a divided club who were unable to stop Neymar leaving. Barca’s transfer policy was criticised, the club president was under fire while all the time Real Madrid were winning everything – including the Spanish Super Cup when they defeated Barça home and away.

But Valverde got things right in the league from the very start. He was helped by the fixture list which kept his team free from Spain’s best sides and a top eight club until the eighth game.

But Barca beat what they had in front of them, while Madrid did not. The Catalans opened up a lead which became improbable for Real Madrid to close after Barca defeated them in December’s Bernabeu clasico.

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Atletico Madrid, whom Barca play next week after a spell of three league games in seven days before they play Chelsea again in their Champions League last-16 game have provided a sterner challenge.

They are seven points behind Barca with 14 league games to play, while Real Madrid are 14 behind.

Barca have never made it to 24 games unbeaten at the start of a league season and Girona, who stand in the way of Barca breaking their 31-game unbeaten record, are a highly creditable eighth in their first ever season in the top flight.

Girona, a wealthy city of 100,000 located 100 kilometres north of Barcelona, has long been a city of Barca fans rather than Girona fans. That has changed in recent years and they now average 10,000 fans of their own.

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Six hundred of them will travel to Camp Nou in what will be the biggest league following of this season. Demand was far higher from Girona, who took 4,000 fans when they last played at Barca B. Many more Girona fans have bought tickets in home sections.

It will also be the second Catalan derby of the day since Barca’s B team host Gimnastic Tarragona four hours before the first team over the road in the Mini-Estadi in a second tier fixture. ‘Nastic’ have long been a bigger club than Girona and played in Spain’s top-flight long before Girona became the eighth Catalan club to play at that level.

Barca still have some way to catch the all-time unbeaten Primera Liga record set by Real Sociedad 40 years ago when the Basques won consecutive league titles.

They are capable of breaking it, but they face some tough fixtures over the next nine games against Atletico, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and a trip to Sevilla.