Europe’s top leagues come to an end this weekend with no suspense about the potential winners.
Teams in La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 will play their final games with most players concerned about the upcoming World Cup, or their holiday plans. The Premier League and Bundesliga already wrapped up last weekend. The only surprise this season where league titles are concerned was the battle between Juventus and Napoli in the Serie A.
Whereas all the other competitions finished, or likely will finish, with double-digit leads for the leaders, Napoli made Juventus work for a seventh consecutive title. Elsewhere, Manchester City accumulated a historic 100 points with a 19-point lead over Manchester United in England and Bayern Munich finished 21 points ahead of Schalke in Germany. Barcelona has a 12-point lead with one game remaining in Spain while Paris Saint-Germain waltzed to a 15-point lead over Monaco in France with one unimportant game remaining.
For all their dominance domestically, these teams failed to meet expectations in Europe.
Manchester City were dark horse contenders for the Champions League, and a solid run in the competition was expected considering the talent at Pep Guardiola’s disposal. City’s early season form, and the fantastic play that came with it, heightened expectations that a good run would occur barring disaster. That disaster came in the form of a confident, energetic Liverpool team and City were brushed aside over two legs. There’s no need for Guardiola’s side to be too concerned though.
The Citizens still have a fantastic squad with depth and experience. Yaya Toure’s departure means a new midfield addition is likely and the arrival of a left-back will free up Fabian Delph play his more natural role. If he stays. One major question will be whether Guardiola makes the right decision when City reach that stage again. He hasn’t made much of a dent on this competition since his Barcelona days. Next season would be a good time to start.
Barcelona will end the season with a double but it certainly feels underwhelming.
The Blaugrana were bailed out time and again by Lionel Messi in games big and small. The loss of Neymar decreased the squad’s attacking verve and Ernesto Valverde’s approach didn’t help. That was clear in the embarrassing collapse against Roma in the Champions League. The former Athletic Bilbao manager essentially trotted out a supercharged version of his former Bilbao squads this season. The defensive solidity was a welcome change but it made Barcelona reliant on Messi’s magic against well-organized opposition.
The squad will likely see an overhaul as it seems Valverde had a hard time trusting Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes in midfield. Barcelona fans would certainly have no problem with the latter getting the boot. The major issue will be Andres Iniesta’s departure and, again, central defense. It’s possible that Valverde, if he stays, will fit Philippe Coutinho in that role but there is still a lack of overall depth in the squad. It also matters that there are few real difference makers on the bench unlike their rivals, Real Madrid. Valverde will have to change something next season beyond players. If he wants to remain solid and is as averse to the 4-3-3 as he seems then a 4-2-3-1 with Messi behind Suarez would be better than the 4-4-2 we saw so much of this season.
Bayern Munich sacked Carlo Ancelotti early in the season and they probably aren’t upset with the result. Had they matched Real Madrid’s clinical finishing in the Champions League semifinal then they would be looking at a possible treble. There will certainly be some major decisions to make over the summer. Jupp Heynckes’ stint at the club is one, and overhauling an ageing squad is another. Bayern still has no problems domestically with the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery but the wing duo no longer have a major impact in Europe. The overall depth of the squad is okay but making James Rodriquez a full-time member of the squad should be a priority. Another forward to back up, or possibly replace, Robert Lewandowski would be a good addition.
A large part of Bayern’s success next season will depend on who is at the helm. They should return to the latter stages of the Champions League but it will be a long road.
Juventus. No more Gianluigi Buffon means a new era begins. It was sad to see the legendary goalkeeper’s last European game end as it did, especially after what was almost a fantastic comeback. Europe still eludes the Old Lady though Maximiliano Allegri led the side to another double this season. The domestic success came with some ups and downs. By the way, if you haven’t watched the Juventus series on Netflix then do so. It’s fantastic. Allegri’s decisions in certain games nearly cost Juventus another Serie A title just as much as Napoli’s collapse won it for them. The core of the squad makes for a serious contender in Europe but fresh faces are needed in defense and midfield.
Paris Saint-Germain already have a new coach, as BBC reports Thomas Tuchel has taken over from Unai Emery. That was expected after the disappointing defeat to Real Madrid in the Round of 16. The league is a given for this squad with Tuchel in charge. The possibility of Neymar’s departure will be a major cause for concern though. The Brazilian left Barcelona to be a leading force in a Champions League contender but saw his side fail miserably without him. A replacement for Thiago Motta’s experience in midfield will be necessary but, barring any major departures, Tuchel has a lot to work with. His inexperience in the Champions League may be the one thing that works against the Parisians.
My piece for the BootRoom on Barcelona’s summer
There are still almost two months left in the transfer window, but Barcelona need to get a move on. At least, that’s what the Twitterati would have many believing. Some Barcelona fans may agree with that assertion.
Last season was a disappointing one for the Blaugrana,despite the club picking up silverware by winning the Copa del Rey. The club’s defensive frailties were a source of concern time again, along with a lax attitude when facing smaller sides.
A main reason for this was that, in Luis Enrique’s final season in charge, Barcelona failed to look like Barcelona at all. The control of midfield was gone, along with the pressing from the front. Part of that was due to the managers instructions but injuries and loss of form affected various players throughout the season.
There were additions aplenty during the summer of 2016 but only one player, Samuel Umtiti, proved capable of handling the Barcelona cauldron.
With Enrique’s departure common knowledge for the last quarter of the season there was plenty of anticipation surrounding who his replacement would be. Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde was the man chosen in the end, in a solid but somewhat underwhelming move. The 53-year-old is a good coach and one that has proven himself in La Liga, but Barcelona is an entirely different beast compared to Bilbao.
The speed with which the decision was made suggested that Barcelona would be in for a decisive summer. The renewal of Lionel Messi’s contract also helped calm any worries. Still, Barcelona fans are likely casting envious glances upon seeing the money being spent in the England, by their rivals, Real Madrid, and even in Italy, by AC Milan.
There are plenty reasons for fans of the Blaugrana to stop worrying, though.
Valverde’s appointment means at least one point of contention during Enrique’s tenure, the development of youth prospects, will be addressed. Valverde has no problem trusting young players with talent and one can expect the likes of Sergi Samper and Carles Alena to get a decent amount of chances.
Those a step ahead, like Munir, should also see more regular minutes, along with the now permanently signed Marlon, who performed well in defense at the end of last season. Those players will help with issues of rotation and depth, providing they take their chances if they stay at the club. There were still glaring issues for the new coach to fix, but those have been dealt with in a relatively fuss-free manner.
As reported on Barcelona’s official club website, Gerard Deloufou returned from Everton after four seasons. His addition, along with Munir’s return from loan, helps address the issue of depth up from for the Blaugrana.
There may be some worry about his overall impact given his inconsistency but he has the technical skills one would expect from a former starlet at La Masia, and his form at Milan in the second half of the 2016/17 was full of positive moments.
His return may result in Rafina spending more time in midfield when he returns form injury. Another addition comes in the form of Benfica right-back, Nelson Semedo, whose arrival the club recently confirmed. The Portuguese defender may not be Dani Alves reincarnate, but he and Aleix Vidal provide Valverde options in a problem position.
Semedo’s arrival means Sergi Roberto will spend the majority of time in a more familiar midfield role. That would leave Valverde able to choose between him, Rafina, Andre Gomes, Ivan Rakitic, Denis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and, sometimes, Arda Turan for the three available midfield berths. Neither depth nor quality should be an issue in midfield for Barcelona.
Barcelona fans will still be hoping for that blockbuster signing, with Marco Verratti the top rumoured target, as reported by the Daily Mail. While his signing would definitely energize the fans, and possibly the squad as well, it may result in a few departures that hurts the squads overall depth.
There’s no guaranteed thing in football and Barcelona have made two solid additions in key areas of need. There are few players available that would make this squad better. Free from the extreme intensity of Enrique, and armed with a fresh approach under Valverde, there is the possibility of success next season.
Other big teams across Europe may be spending to fix multiple issues, but Barcelona’s main concerns lasts season were in the game plan and mental approach in certain matches. The continued adaptation of last season’s additions should make any squad rotation less of a risk next term.
Barcelona will have plenty to prove throughout the 2017/18 campaign, with both players new and old and the coach looking to silence any critics. Money alone won’t help with that. Barcelona’s summer so far may be low-key but it maybe just what is needed to return to the top in Europe.
My piece for the Boot Room on what Enrique’s departure means for Barcelona
It seemed inevitable. The constant pressure, criticism, and rumours would sap the energy of any manager.
As reported by the Guardian, Luis Enrique announced he will be leaving Barcelona at the end of this season after his side’s 6-1 victory over Sporting Gijon on Wednesday. The timing may seem a little strange, but given everything that’s occurred over the last three seasons, and especially in recent months, this decision seemed likely.
Enrique has won eight of the ten trophies available to him in his tenure and overseen the fabled MSN trio so it hasn’t been all bad. His departure isn’t all that dissimilar from his friend Pep Guardiola’s a few seasons ago. Guardiola announced his decision nearer the end of a campaign that saw Barcelona lose their title to Real Madrid and get knocked out of Champions League by familiar foes Chelsea. The Blaugrana won the Copa del Rey but Enrique will be hoping to go two better.
So what does this mean for Barcelona in their present state? In reality, very little changes. Especially on the field.
Enrique’s announcement does mean the manager and his squad can focus solely on football without the distractions about his future. This side is in a better position domestically than they were at the beginning of the year and can still hold out hope for a miracle in the Champions League.
The shock loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League tie in February still sticks in the mind but Barcelona bounced back by beat Atletico Madrid to reach the Copa del Rey. Barcelona’s chances to retain La Liga have improved considerably in the last few weeks. The Blaugrana are currently first in the league having played one more game than Real Madrid. Enrique’s team has gotten some help in reeling in their rivals, including from fellow title hopeful Sevilla, but have also gotten the results necessary to keep the pressure on.
One reason for that has been the increased focus on regaining the control in midfield that has been deemed missing for most of the campaign. One of the major criticisms of Enrique’s tenure has been the increasing loss of identity and the diminishing importance of the club’s style of play. This Barcelona side isn’t feared as much as previous versions due to their inability to really control a game and their weaknesses have been exposed on more than one occasion. The loss of form and absences of key players has contributed to this, along with a lack of adequate and consistent performances by their replacements.
Barcelona has trotted out in a 3-4-3 formation in the last two games against Atletico Madrid and Sporting. Enrique stated this change was to regain the control that has been missing, as seen here on ESPN FC, and it will be interesting to see how long it continues. Celta Vigo are up next in La Liga and the hardest remaining test is a trip to Madrid for El Clasico where the title could be decided if Barcelona doesn’t slip again. A fully focused, and healthy, Barcelona squad, led by a manager who has eased some of his worries, will feel they still have a shot at the treble.
The other effect of Enrique’s announcement is that it provides clarity and forces action off the field as well. The Barcelona board can now look for a replacement, and focus on renewing Lionel Messi’s contract. Messi is unlikely to leave Barcelona given he won’t find an S and N elsewhere and especially so if the new manager is one he’ll be happy to work with. That is the major task for Barcelona president, Josep Bartomeu. Finding a manager that can deal with the juggernaut that is Barcelona and all that encompasses, from the players to the press to the fans.
The list of names that have cropped up in the rumour mill throughout Enrique’s tenure is interesting.
Some names, like Arsene Wenger, can only be classified as peak rumour-mill, while others, like Mauricio Pochettino, will be cause for plenty of debate. Two such managers have already taken their hat out of the ring as ESPNFC reports that the aforementioned Wenger only has eyes for Arsenal, while Real Sociedad’s Eusebio is honoring his contract. Eusebio does have the history Barcelona prefer in their managers, having played for the club before spending time as an assistant for the senior side then briefly managing Barcelona B, but he doesn’t have the profile Enrique or Guardiola did and was sacked at Barcelona B.
Other names include the likely front-runner, Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde, Everton’s Ronald Koeman, Laurent Blanc and current assistant Juan Carlos Unzue.
The only one of those, aside from Pochettino, without any former Barcelona association, is Sampaoli but his fantastic first European season puts him at the head of the queue. Pochettino’s work with England will have eyes wondering his way as well but his Catalan past is tied to rival club Espanyol as both a player and manager. That kind of history won’t sit well with some fans nor, it seems, per ESPNFC, the man himself. Valverde had a short stint at Barcelona and his Athletic side are always a handful but his playing style may rule him out. Koeman wouldn’t be a surprising option given his tactical acumen and, of course, his history with the club. Blanc is the type of manager who could keep things ticking over without upsetting the apple cart but there will be doubts considering how is time at Paris Saint-Germain ended. Unzue is already well-established with this Barcelona squad as Enrique’s assistant and may have his own ideas to retool the squad for consistent dominance.
The possibilities are all there for Bartemeu and he has until season’s end to get a manager in place before the transfer window. No more words are needed for Enrique beyond support for him and his staff in the quest for silverware this season. That continues on Saturday against a Celta Vigo side that beat them 4-3 earlier in October. Keeping the pressure on Madrid until El Clasico is of the utmost importance and, at the very least, a noble Champions League exit a la Arsenal would save some face. Should Barcelona pull off the miracle of beating PSG and kick-start a long Champions run Enrique’s departure may be met with a bit more consternation?
For now, the Barcelona manager will want to focus on each task as it comes. With one of his last moves, Enrique has likely galvanized his squad and focused them on facing the tasks ahead, and possibly the boardroom as well. That bodes well for Barcelona’s present and future.
The last international break of the season is complete and it comes at great time for Barcelona.
The fixture list at the beginning of the season saw the Blaugrana endure a few hiccups but the toughest tests were successfully negotiated. And by a few hiccups I mean a shock loss to newly promoted Alaves, at home, and another loss, somewhat less shocking this time, against bogey team Celta Vigo.
Regardless, Luis Enrique’s side sit second in the table only two points behind an even less impressive Real Madrid side. Barcelona have negotiated tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Celta, Valencia and Sevilla already this season. They dropped points in only one of those games. Their two toughest away games, against Madrid and Atletico, are all that remain but visits to Real Sociedad and Villarreal should be treated with caution. While injuries remain a concern the likes of Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba are on the verge of a return and there is now enough depth to cover for Andres Iniesta in midfield.
Barcelona’s first fixture upon their return sees them host Malaga and that game presents a great chance for Paco Alcacer to finally open his account with Luis Suarez out suspended. The remaining La Liga games in the year see the Blaugrana face Sociedad(away), Real Madrid(home) Osasuna(away) Espanyol(home). Barcelona should expect maximum points from all those encounters including the Madrid game. A home and away tie against Hercules in the Copa del Rey and Champions League matches against Celtic(away) and Borussia Mochengladbach(home) complete the calendar year.
Provided there are no further major injury worries or extreme drops in form among players then Barcelona will expect to be top of league entering 2017. There are still issues for the Enrique to fix defensively and a lack of control sometimes in games that can be attributed to no Xavi and an off-form Busquets. That’s why you have MSN though, and especially Messi on his current form.
Enrique will make sure his side is focused for every game until the end of the year and that should put Barcelona in a good position when 2017 begins.
It’s probably a bit too early to be thinking about this but it’s definitely intriguing. You could see Enrique moving on or taking a break after this season and if he does there aren’t many options that come to mind right away. Possibly Unai Emery or Paco Jemez. If Sampaoli continues to get Sevilla to perform as they have so far he wouldn’t be an easy target at all though.
So00, of course there are going to be rumors about a key player who has one year left on his contract. There’s no indication that Barcelona would be happy letting Alves leave and I think, considering the likelihood that Vidal might need some more time to adapt, they’ll definitely want to keep Alves at least for the final year in his contract. There’s time to hash out one more year if necessary. It’s a bit too early to be talking about rumors but I guess its transfer season.
So, I think one of Munir and Sandro will go on loan. Denis Suarez is likely to come back pretty cheaply and add additional depth to both midfield and attack. Other departures include one of either Vermaelen or Mathieu, possibly, though Adriano is definitely on the way out. I think Barcelona will find a way to appease both goalkeepers for at least one more season, if not then it would make more sense for Bravo to leave.
Midfield is the one area that probably won’t be touched. As the author said, Rafinha is back and Roberto will likely get more time there and then there’s Halilovic if it comes to that. I think Turan will stay, as will Vidal, so they both get a full season to prove their worth. I guess many expected the to just adapt as quickly as Suarez but he did start playing earlier in the season than they did. The only real major spend I see happening, if it happens, is central defense, unless Barcelona don’t go for Suarez as suggested. We shall see.
Luis Enrique would definitely be the first head to roll. Winning La Liga alone might get him by but winning Copa del Rey might not. Winning both would be his best chance at survival.
The thing with Halilovic is that, unlike some of those other players mentioned, he has not been at Barcelona since his pre-teens. Even with his time at Barca B he is not fully integrated into Barca’s system. More time on loan, or a transfer with a buy-back option, might make it harder for him to make his mark in the senior side. Big decision on both parties but Barcelona need to start going back to youth a little and Halilovic doesn’t seem like a player they should do away with so easily.
Agreed. Barcelona may not be doing much resting after today’s game though, as they only have La Liga to think of. The two Madrid teams have a lot to think about with Champions League games on the horizon.