The end of an era? No, but Barcelona and Lionel Messi must face transition
The Spanish side are on the verge of winning La Liga
Thursday 25 April 2013
Spanish television cut straight to an episode of Masterchef on Tuesday night as soon as the final whistle was blown on Barcelona's four-goal defeat to Bayern Munich.
Post-match analysis is not big in Spain and how Real Madrid fans cursed the lack of any opportunity to pick apart their rivals' worst showing in recent memory. There was no chance to see the Bayern goals again from a fresh angle or a slowed down sequence of an already slowed down Leo Messi. The following day's Madrid papers made up for it, with "End of an Era" the telling headline.
To bring down the curtain on a team whose genial talisman is 25 years old and who are about to win the league title seemed more like wishful thinking from their rivals than a realistic reading of the football landscape. If Real Madrid are beaten in Saturday's Madrid derby then a Barcelona win the same night will mean they are crowned champions.
Tito Vilanova, in a season when a recurrence of a tumour on a saliva gland sidelined him for two months, will have won the title and made it to the Champions League and Spanish Cup semi-finals in his first season. Vilanova will give his first press conference since coming back from chemotherapy tomorrow. He had been expected to hand over his duties to assistant Jordi Roura for the rest of the season but will now speak ahead of the trip to Bilbao.
Messi's peculiar no-show in the Allianz Arena will top the agenda. No one fared worse in the match statistics. He ran 7km (more than four miles) during the game, 2km down on his Champions League average. He is not injured, but neither does he seem fit. Maybe, after four years of playing every game under Pep Guardiola, the stop-start nature of his season brought on by a hamstring tweak and the attempt to protect him from it recurring have upset his impeccable rhythm.
Just as significant in the defeat were Barcelona's shortcomings at the back; defensive problems that have long since threatened to cause embarrassment in a big game. At the start of the season the club tried and failed to sign first Thiago Silva and then Javi Martinez. Under the old regime, with the flamboyant president Joan Laporta in charge, Silva's wage demands would have been met. But Laporta, and his famously extensive club credit-card account, are history at the Nou Camp, and the current president, Sandro Rosell, sees a sizeable annual reduction in the club's debt as another trophy.
Silva wanted striker's wages and when that meant he moved to Paris Saint-Germain instead, and Barcelona decided they could not meet Athletic Bilbao's €40m (£34m) buyout clause for Martinez, Barça were left pretending they had wanted Alex Song all along. The man they paid Arsenal €17m for watched Martinez's stirring display from the bench this week. Song has done well in midfield when picked but Barça's claims that he could fit perfectly into the centre of their defence are yet to be backed up by a performance. This summer the signing of a centre-back will be a priority.
Santos forward Neymar's arrival will be brought forward a season. It remains to be seen whether another physically unimposing player who needs the ball played to his feet is quite what this Barcelona team need but with a €10m deposit paid there seems no going back on Rosell's grand plan.
Barcelona will also need to trim their squad, with numbers set to swell to 35 because of returning loans and promoted youth team players. Evolution not revolution was the watchword. That and the idea that a team whose average age is 27 is far from finished yet.
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