MADRID: Barcelona have kept Lionel Messi, discarded Luis Suarez and hired Ronald Koeman but the new era begins against Villarreal on Sunday when change must bring results.
A shortened break has not made it any easier for Barca, who are attempting in a matter of weeks the kind of renovation most elite clubs would give themselves years to carry out.
Forty-four days will have passed since they were humiliated by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, the match that was followed by their coach being sacked and greatest ever player trying to leave.
Messi was forced to stay and the early indications are he will make good on his promise to give his all this season, as Barcelona look to wrestle back the title lost to Real Madrid in July.
On his first day back, Messi arrived more than an hour early and in his first week, he trained on the team’s days off in what looked like an effort to make up for lost time.
He has played in all three friendlies and scored twice in the second, when a hand clasp with Koeman was poured over by the Spanish press and was generally taken as a positive step.
“He is excited about Koeman’s project,” Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu told TV3 last week. “The important thing is he plays for Barca, at his home. We want him to retire at the club.”
But it is hard to imagine Messi’s thinking has dramatically changed since he angrily admitted defeat in his pursuit of a clause in his contract he thought allowed him to depart for free.
He has watched on as Suarez, his best friend, neighbour and third highest goalscorer in the club’s history, found out through the media his time was up, able eventually to join title rivals Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.
Arturo Vidal, another close friend of Messi’s, has also been let go, sent to Inter Milan for next to nothing.
And Bartomeu, whom Messi has blamed for the decline in recent years, remains, insistent he has no intention of resigning.
As well as Suarez and Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Nelson Semedo have gone while only youngsters – Trincao, Pedri and Matheus Fernandes – have come in, as well as the 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic, whose swap with Arthur Melo was confirmed in June.
Instead, renewal is likely to come not from a change of personnel but the system and pecking order.
Koeman looks ready to deploy a 4-2-3-1 with the two holding midfielders picked from Pjanic, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets, with Busquets perhaps set to be most regularly left out.
Up front Antoine Griezmann will take over from Suarez as partner-in-chief to Messi, potentially with Messi as the central striker and Griezmann just behind.
Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Trincao and Philippe Coutinho are expected to be the main contenders for the attacking spots out wide. The 19-year-old American international Konrad de la Fuente has also impressed.
There will be little change in defence, where Semedo’s exit has left the club searching for a new right-back but Jordi Alba, Clement Lenglet and Gerard Pique will continue ahead of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
For Koeman, there may be some patience with teething problems early on but not much. If Messi had gone, there would have been more.
Koeman only needs to look at his predecessor Quique Setien to know reform must be accompanied by results.
Like Setien, Koeman’s authority is already fragile given presidential elections in March could bring a new regime, who in turn could bring their own coach.
Those elections could even happen sooner if a vote of no confience against Bartomeu is passed by the club’s members next month.
Change at the top would certainly encourage Messi but the Argentinian’s happiness is likely to be most connected with performances on the pitch. Barcelona, and Koeman, need a good start. – AFP
Saturday: Alaves vs Getafe, Valencia vs Huesca, Elche vs Real Sociedad, Real Betis vs Real Madrid
Sunday: Osasuna vs Levante, Eibar vs Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid vs Granada, Cadiz vs Sevilla, Real Valladolid vs Celta Vigo, Barcelona vs Villarreal