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Spanish Inquisition: Who Is Under Pressure At Barcelona?

Satisfied and confident after two consecutive La Liga titles and a Champions League trophy, Barcelona were riding high through the exceedingly creative play of Ronaldinho and company. When one thinks about it, it really was not too long ago that the Brazilian was flashing down the pitch, cutting past defender upon defender, and leaving spectators awestruck by his deft control and boundless creativity.

But after the 2006 World Cup, something changed at Barcelona. Their Brazilian star began making headlines for his escapades in Barcelona’s nightclubs rather than on the pitch, and while Ronaldinho could certainly gain pounds, he began to falter when it came to gaining points for his club. Barcelona relinquished their Liga title to arch-rivals Real Madrid that season, losing it in heartbreaking fashion in the final match of the campaign.

The season was billed as an aberration; the general sentiment was that Barcelona were still exceedingly talented with a young starlet, Lionel Messi, beginning to mature; and it was only a matter of time before Ronaldinho recovered his mythical form. But instead, Ronaldinho’s toothy grin faded along with the Brazilian’s magic and Madrid ran away with the Liga title again—this time humiliating the Blaugrana in the Santiago Bernabeu after Barca formed the obligatory honour guard before the match, paying tribute to the Liga champions.

What Barcelona accomplished thereafter in just one year is truly remarkable. Offloading Frank Rijkaard as well as Ronaldinho, Deco, and a few others, B team coach Pep Guardiola took hold of the first team reins and with just three significant signings in Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, and Seydou Keita, transformed Barca into one of the best sides the sport of football has ever seen.

Having broken records that were previously thought untouchable, Barcelona won an unprecedented ‘triplete’, reclaiming their La Liga title from Madrid, taking the Copa del Rey, and defeating title-holders Manchester United to win the Champions League. And not only did Barcelona win, but they did so in style as one of the most attractive footballing teams in recent memory.

But with the summer vacations now winding down and a new season beckoning on the horizon, Barcelona are faced with the task of preparing to defend their three titles from a Real Madrid who have stolen the headlines this summer by signing some of the biggest names in football. And continuing to play at such a high level will be difficult to sustain for a second season as players could possibly be less motivated having already experienced the satisfaction of accomplishing their objectives.

It is with these uncertainties in mind that we try to determine who will find themselves under pressure at Barcelona.

El Tridente

This past year, the attacking trio of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, was one of the most lethal that football has ever seen. Dubbed in the Spanish Press as the ‘Tridente’ or trident of Barcelona’s squad, the Frenchman, Cameroonian and Argentine left even the most skilled goalkeepers trying to catch their breath from the merciless assault on goal.

But with a new season comes new challenges.

Eto’o is the biggest question mark in Barcelona’s attack. The striker has been inexplicably ostracised by the Barca front office as president Joan Laporta very publicly stated that he was looking to upgrade the position (despite the fact that Eto’o was two goals off winning the Pichichi last season and led La Liga in goals scored for much of the campaign).  

The Cameroonian is understandably incensed at being used as a bargaining chip in the club’s transactions and at this point it seems very unlikely that Eto’o will be a Barcelona player next season. The Eto’o saga has the potential of unsettling a squad that was very stable last season, as it now demonstrates that no one is untouchable—other players have now seen that even one of the team’s most consistent performers and tireless workers can be unceremoniously thrown onto the chopping block.

At 32 years old (once the season begins), Thierry Henry is entering the twilight of his career. Having exhibited something of a renaissance last season under Guardiola, the onus falls on the Frenchman to once again outperform his age and deliver another season of his best football. It remains to be seen if ‘Titi’ will be able to meet that expectation.

As for Messi, his goal in the Champions League final against the Red Devils pushed the diminutive Argentine head and shoulders above Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world. But one trend that has held true for the past three World Players of the Year is that the following season, they tend to exhibit a dip in form.

Messi was very fortunate not to suffer a debilitating injury last season, something he had been unable to do in his previous seasons. Unfortunately, statistics are not on the number 10’s side with respect to another injury-free season. And even if Messi is able to avoid getting hurt, having cemented his status as the best in the world, he will be feeling the pressure of continuing to uphold that standard.

Carles Puyol

The fearless captain of the Barcelona side, Puyol is now 31 years old and is beginning to lose a bit of his pace. With his age, injuries have also become something of a problem and when he is out of the side, the Blaugrana defence looks far more vulnerable than otherwise. As they set out to defend their titles, Barcelona need to be able to depend on their long-locked captain to lead and keep the team motivated. If he is unable to consistently direct and coordinate the back line, Barca could have some trouble at the back next season.

Victor Valdes

Judged by many as the weak link in Barcelona’s team last season, it was long speculated that Barca would part ways with their goalkeeper this summer in favour of a more consistent shot-stopper. The Blaugrana were reported to be very keen on U-21 starlet Sergio Asenjo, but when the Valladolid keeper snubbed Barca and signed for Atletico de Madrid instead, Barca chose to renew Valdes’ contract. The pressure will be on the suspect keeper to prove that he deserved to stay.

Pep Guardiola

Coming from the Barcelona B team to coach the first team, no one expected Pep Guardiola to lead Barca to three out of three titles last season. Now, having shown that he is more than capable of managing in the top flight, Guardiola will be pressed to show what he can do with Barcelona in a second season follow-up.

Defending a title is different from pushing for a championship for the first time. This past season, Guardiola would humbly play his squad down by reminding the press that Barca had not won anything yet. Such is not the case this season and it will be interesting to see how Pep handles being put in the position of favourite rather than underdog.

His ability to manage will be tested as he tries to keep his squad motivated.

Joan Laporta

Despite the fact that Barcelona won the triplete this past season, Real Madrid have quickly turned the proverbial page, stealing the summer spotlight by signing Kaka, Raul Albiol, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Barcelona president Joan Laporta has attempted to counter by pursuing some major signings of his own with Valencia’s David Villa being most heavily rumoured to be headed for Catalunya.

Unfortunately though, the very public pursuit of Villa seems to have backfired, as Valencia are proving doggedly reluctant to sell. Even worse, Laporta seems to have alienated star striker Samuel Eto’o in the process, the Cameroonian not feeling adequately respected by the club for whom he has scored two crucial Champions League final goals.

The amount of pressure Laporta faces could be directly tied to how he handles the Eto’o situation and his success in bringing in the necessary reinforcements. At the moment, the situation looks like it could eerily mirror the dilemma Madrid faced with Robinho last summer. If the saga takes a turn for the worse and Barca begin to falter, Laporta could begin to feel the pressure and could once again be hearing menacing whistles directed toward the director’s box in the Camp Nou…

Cyrus C. Malek,