As this is my first blog, something I have never done before and am very excited about doing, where better to start in La Liga than with the greatest club side in the world over the past 5 years, Barcelona, and who many people now regard as the greatest footballer ever to live, Lionel Messi.
I will begin with the current Spanish Champions, Barcelona. What a ride this group of players, with their 3 leaders Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi showing the way, have been on over the last 5 years. Since the end of the 2007/08 season, when Barcelona finished 3rd in La Liga and were knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United, they became what many are saying the greatest club side that has ever graced a football pitch. Led by their inspirational leader, in the players’ eyes especially, Pep Guardiola, they won the European Cup in 2009, gaining revenge on Manchester United with a 2-0 victory in Rome, the La Liga title along with the Copa Del Rey beating Bilbao in the final.
They won the European Cup again in 2011, again beating Manchester United in the final, this time much more convincingly on a historic night at Wembley. They dominated Spain and Europe throughout the reign of Guardiola, who made the decision to step down as Coach of FCB after their Champions League Semi-Final defeat to Chelsea in 2012. The Barcelona board moved swiftly to replace Guardiola with his Assistant and long-time friend, Tito Vilanova.
Now that I have set the scene, I am now going to explore the changes experienced at the Camp Nou over the last 12 months and how this has affected the club…
…Despite walking to the La Liga title- which was the main aim at the start of the season after losing it to the ‘100 point’ Madrid side led by Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo- this did not seem enough for the Barcelona fans and players, at least that is the feeling you get. They wanted to dominate Europe again, and the humbling 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich (ironically Guardiola’s next club) opened a few eyes to the problems they now face. Under Vilanova, Barca won 18 of their first 19 La Liga matches, a new record, but after Christmas they have looked far from their best. Maybe down to Vilanova’s serious illness, maybe not. They are certainly a diffferent proposition under Vilanova, many said originally that he had improved them, but maybe those people are not so sure now. What about the players? Guardiola was Xavi and Iniesta’s idol when they were growing up in La Masia, to play under him would have been a dream come true. The players worshipped the ground he walked on, even Messi, who had the world at his feet, literally. Maybe the players didnt respect Tito as much or maybe he couldnt have the sustained impact he needed due to his illness. I guess the only way to find out is to give Tito next season and see what happens then.
They will certainly need to buy well, and by that I mean strengthen in the right area i.e. central defence. Alex Song was brought in last summer as a centre half because they could not afford Thiago Silva who ended up at French big-spenders Paris Saint-Germain, but at Arsenal Song was a holding midfielder. Why not sign an out and out centre half to help the ‘in-and-out’ Puyol and the ‘hit and miss’ (in my eyes) Gerard Pique. One player that stays in my mind is Dmytro Chygrynskiy, a player signed from Shakhtar Donetsk in August 2009 and sold back there in July 2010; he simply wasn’t up to it. ‘It’ , meaning this Barcelona team, the greatest ever under the intense eye of Pep Guardiola, who despite wanting to keep him at Barca, saw the centre half return to Donetsk. My view is that Barca are reluctant to take chances on defenders who are not brought up playing in La Masia, the ‘Barcelona way’. Instead they go for huge superstar attackers such as Neymar, brought in this summer from Santos. Why? This brings me to the genius that is…
The greatest footballer ever. Not my words, the words of many over the last 5 years. So why did Barca feel the need to go and get Neymar for such a huge fee? I believe they would not have done so had Messi been performing this season like he did under Guardiola. Ok he hasn’t been fit all year, but when fit he certainly hasn’t hit the heights of the Guardiola era and the nights like the 4 goals against Arsenal in the Camp Nou or that goal against Madrid in the Bernabeu. The idea of signing Neymar could hold a number of reasons: to help, to improve or to replace Messi?
I’m not for one minute suggesting Barca will sell Messi any time soon but maybe the team will not revolve around him as much but more, eventually, around Neymar. Indeed the absence of Messi this season was crushing for Barca, not least Xavi, who instantly looks for Messi every time he receives the ball, and the other Barcelona superstars. Only time will tell on this one, Messi could quite easily blow us all away again next season and we will all feel like we are back in the Guardiola days watching this genius at work, now who wouldn’t want that?