With some claiming Barcelona's 7-0 aggregate Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich spells the end of an era, The Independent's Pete Jenson identifies five areas the Spaniards can target to recapture former glories.
1. Sign a centre-back
As much as they would love to believe otherwise, Carles Puyol is not Benjamin Button. The 35-year-old defender is not getting any younger. He has played only 19 games this season and no one else has the defensive instinct, the organisation, and physical presence in the current group to replace him alongside Gerard Pique.
It was obvious last summer, and after a 7-0 reverse against Bayern it screams out at president Sandro Rosell who baulked at Thigao Silva’s wage demands last year and has ended up paying for it in lost Uefa prize-money (There is €17m on offer for winning the Champions League). Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany would fit the requirements perfectly but neither wants to leave their current teams and their clubs have no necessity to sell. Real Sociedad’s 21-year-old Inigo Martinez is another being watched and reigniting last year’s interest in Liverpool’s Daniel Agger has not been ruled out.
2. Messi’s wing men
Cries for Barcelona to sign a centre-forward and move Lionel Messi’s position on the pitch ignore the fact that playing there he scored almost 100 goals in 2012 and has 54 this season. But there must be goals either side of him coming from players capable of attacking the space he leaves behind when dropping deep. Players capable of playing through the middle but willing and able to sacrifice themselves starting in wider areas.
Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o did it in the 2008-09 season and David Villa likewise in the 2010-11 campaign. Neymar will arrive this summer but may take more than a season to adjust. After scoring 18 goals for the B team this season 19-year-old Gerard Deloufeu may also get his chance but is another who might need time.
A more experienced reinforcement who will do as Henrik Larsson and Henry have done in the past may be sought.
3. The clear-out
With those returning from loan spells and various youth team players contracted to step up to the senior squad Barcelona’s numbers could swell to 35 players this summer. Sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta will need to sell before he buys.
Striker Villa, midfielder Thiago Alcantara and full-back Adriano as well as unwanted returning loans such as Bojan Krkic and Ibrahim Afellay could all be moved on. And if a worthwhile bid comes in for Alexis Sanchez he will be first through the door after six goals in 36 games this season.
Some Barcelona fans have even started to think the unthinkable that if a sizeable bid were to come in for Cesc Fabregas the returned prodigal son could be sold. It is true his comeback has been disappointing but he has just bought a new house in nearby Castelldefels and coach Tito Vilanova, who was Fabregas’ coach at schoolboy level, is determined to make the homecoming a success.
4. Messi dependence
Before Pep Guardiola took over in 2008 Messi was a player forever wrapped in cotton wool. Under Guardiola he played four straight seasons with barely a fortnight out at any one time. He would come back from international duty and take a taxi straight to training before starting the next league game. Guardiola improved diet and preparation and the idea of resting him was taken out of the equation almost as if it was psychologically negative.
Post-Pep the old fear has returned – he is back in that grey area of being neither injured, nor fit. He watched Wednesday’s game from the bench as an unused substitute and then trained the day after. Vilanova said after the match that it was not that Messi had been injured, but there was a fear he might get injured. It is a drama that must not be allowed to turn into a crisis.
5. Cold nights in Stoke
When this sentiment was first given airtime – that Barça would struggle to win at the Britannia in the depths of winter – it was unashamed nonsense. Barcelona’s finest XIs over the past five seasons – notably from 2009 and 2011 – could beat anybody, anywhere, no matter how hostile the climate or the opposition.
And it wasn’t just that their brilliance meant as one eulogy read they “could play in the rain, without getting wet”, they were also very capable of looking after themselves.
But a brief look at the players they have lost across the last four seasons to age, injury, illness or to rival clubs (Yaya Touré, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Seydou Keita, Puyol, Eric Abidal and even Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and the common link is presence on the pitch. They bounced off Bayern in midweek. This summer they need to find some characters who will give the team back its attitude.