LOOK at the facts: top of La Liga, in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, crowds of 74,000 people packing the Camp Nou every game, and now top of the Deloitte Football Money League for the first time. Barcelona were supposedly, in crisis mode.
It’s all relative, of course, as some people have noted. Bury was a crisis and they are no longer playing football. Even by elitist discomfort standards, Barcelona’s “crisis” was not a “Manchester United situation”. It’s just that Barca are accustomed to high quality, flowing football and they’ve not been getting that. They’ve been rather spoiled in the Catalan capital.
Coach Ernesto Valverde was the fall guy in this drama and was relieved of his duties by Barcelona. They made a mess of it and were left with egg on their face as Xavi, one of their favourite sons, turned down the job a few days ago. This left Barca in something of a quandry because Valverde had been told by the club that he will be getting the sack – a quite bizarre way to conduct business. Former Barca midfielder Andrés Iniesta has said the Valverde affair was a “bit ugly” and that people should have more respect for the coach. The whole episode made Barca look very unprofessional and lacking scruples. It also meant the club had to act quickly to find a replacement for Valverde. The baton was passed to Quique Setién, the 61 year-old former manager of Real Betis.
But who exactly is in the driving seat at the Camp Nou? There are hints of player power in Barcelona. Lionel Messi has said he may leave if his “demands” are not met. According to media reports, Messi wanted Valverde to be dismissed immediately and for Ronald Koeman to take his place. Those same reports suggest Messi also wanted the club to get rid of players who are not good enough and for Barca to sign PSG’s Neymar and Lautaro Martinez from Inter Milan. He recently blamed his team-mates for “childish mistakes” in the Super Cup defeat in Jeddah, the game that added fire to the “Valverde out” movement.
Barcelona cannot afford for Messi to depart as they are still very reliant on the Argentinian and now Luis Suarez is out for a few months they cannot risk losing their talismanic number 10. The “gorilla in the room” is what will Barca do when Messi retires? He has scored 13 goals this season in 14 games in La Liga. Barca’s home form has been good, in nine games, they have scored four or more goals seven times. But away from the Camp Nou, Barca have lost three, drawn three and won four. Big summer signing Antoine Griezmann, who cost € 120 million, has struggled to adapt to the Barca style, but the other big signing, Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong, who cost € 73 million, has been a success. Although Barca are top of the table, they don’t seem particularly happy about it and Real Madrid are breathing down their necks with one of their least appealing teams of recent years.
Valverde’s style did not go down too well with Barca’s fans, even though it was good enough for the club to extend his contract for two years last February. In truth, the writing had been on the wall for him since the Liverpool Champions League debacle in 2018-19 when a three-goal lead from the first leg was thrown away as Barca lost 4-0 in the second leg. Barca also lost the Copa del Rey final last season against Valencia.
In this season’s Champions League, Barca came through their group unbeaten and will face Napoli in the last 16. Goals were a bit scarce – nine in six games – but it wasn’t one of the easiest groups, including Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund.
Perhaps that’s why Barca were keen to dispose of Valverde – they were still smarting from last season’s capitulation at Anfield and they don’t want any careless slip-ups. Having gone into Christmas ahead in La Liga and qualified for the last 16, they may have wanted a little insurance ahead of the vital games. It was interesting that Valverde criticised the decision to playing the Spanish Super Cup in the Middle East, admitting that the only reason the competition was being played in Saudi Arabia was money. “The bottom line is football has become a business and as a business it looks for income,” he said. Was he trying to force his employers’ arm by speaking out? If he was, it worked.
As for the league, they are going to have to work harder for the title this season as Barca and Real Madrid are level on points. When the two sides met just before Christmas, it was one of the worst clasico encounters seen for some time, adding fuel to the argument that the Spanish giants are both less than formidable at the moment. Setién is a disciple of the Barca style and an admirer of Johan Cruyff, but he’s never won a major honour as a manager. Will his appointment make them any happier?