Broken Barcelona face toughest season in years after summer of discontent
These are troubled times at Futbol Club Barcelona. After missing out on La Liga and exiting early in the Champions League last season, the Blaugrana claimed only the Copa del Rey in 2016-17 and their team has since been made weaker by Neymar's shock move to Paris Saint-Germain.
While Barca saw Real Madrid win both the Primera Division and the Champions League last term, the Catalans could still argue then that their first XI was stronger, pointing in particular to their thrilling 3-2 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in April.
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But with Neymar now departed and a replacement yet to be brought in, that is no longer the case. In the meantime, Andres Iniesta is nearing the end of a glorious playing career and the summer signings have been uninspiring.
Gerard Deulofeu has returned from Everton on a buy-back deal, but the Catalan winger has not developed as hoped and much more will be expected this time around. It remains to be seen, meanwhile, whether Nelson Semedo can solve the team's problems at right-back and just what impact Paulinho will have in midfield after his €40m arrival earlier this week is unclear.
Squad strength is where Madrid really trumped Barca in 2016-17 and little has changed in that respect.
In the first leg of the Spanish Supercopa on Sunday, Real were able to throw on Cristiano Ronaldo (who would usually start, of course), Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez, while Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos (two targets for the Catalan club this summer) did not even make it onto the pitch. And all of that with Luka Modric missing through suspension.
Barca's bench was somewhat less imposing. Coach Ernesto Valverde, the man charged with changing the team's fortunes after Luis Enrique's reign ended in disappointing fashion last season, brought on Sergi Roberto, Paco Alcacer and Denis Suarez in the second half at Camp Nou. Good players, yes, but not game-changers.
Neymar's departure means some of the spark has also gone from the attack and Barca desperately need to bring in at least one player as a replacement for the Brazil forward, with Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele the top targets. Both are exciting players, although they would still need to adapt to Barca's style and the club will have to overpay at this late stage of the transfer window, too.
One of Valverde's toughest tasks will be improving the midfield and that is even more important now that the MSN trident has been broken up. However, Iniesta is looking like a fading force in what will likely be his last season at Camp Nou, while the signing of the more direct Paulinho suggests Valverde is not overly concerned with a return to the juego de posición philosophy of years gone by.
Over the past decade, Barca's brilliant midfield has owed much to the players developed in the youth system at La Masia. However, there have been few footballers making the step up to the first team from the academy in recent times.
The talented Carles Alena could prove to be the exception to the rule after the midfielder, who is still only 19, was promoted to the senior squad on a permanent basis during pre-season. However, many supporters are unhappy with the signing of Paulinho, given the club had hoped to bring in PSG playmaker Marco Verratti at the start of the summer.
"A lot is being said about Paulinho before he's even got here," Valverde said of the club's latest arrival on Tuesday. "He's a great player and a very important one for Brazil. He is strong physically and adds a new dimension to the team. He's a good acquisition and he will give us versatility."
However, the former Athletic Club coach is aware that there is work still to be done in the transfer market over the next two weeks. "Up until August 31st we are open to making changes in the team and strengthening the squad," he said. "It is an enormous challenge."
He's not wrong. For the first time in years, Los Blancos look significantly stronger than their Clasico adversaries and Valverde will need to get his side up to speed soon in order to compete with Real Madrid in both the Primera Division and the Champions League, having already lost out to Zinedine Zidane's men in the Supercopa over two legs.
Asked after the 3-1 loss to Madrid in the Supercopa whether Real were superior to Barca, Valverde said: "We won't admit that our opponent was superior to us, but we can say they made fewer mistakes. Madrid, Atletico, Bayern... none of them are better than us. Why?"
Tough talk, but the 53-year-old needs new signings, defensive improvements and a pertinent plan for the midfield to keep pace with the top teams in 2017-18, as well as cutting out the mental lapses that led to the sloppy defeats that cost Barcelona La Liga last term.
Up against a Madrid team looking in stronger shape than they have for many years and with continued unrest at boardroom level at Camp Nou, it currently looks like too much to ask.