A new season and a new coach, but a host of problems on the horizon: FC Barcelona fans may have been relieved to hear Lionel Messi say he would see out the remaining season of his contract, but few of them will be looking forward to the forthcoming campaign with optimism after events of the past months.
Barca ended last season on a low after allowing Real Madrid to overturn a two-point deficit in La Liga to claim the title by five points, before hopes of redeeming themselves in Europe were shattered by Bayern Munich, who inflicted Barca’s worst ever European defeat (8-2) in the Champions League quarterfinals.
That humiliation had an immediate fallout, with Quique Setien sacked as coach and replaced by Ronald Koeman, who may be a former Barca hero, but whose record as a club coach is mixed.
The continued search for culprits then led to the belated decision to carry out a major clearout of the dressing room, with veterans such as Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez, Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets all singled out as culprits.
Of those four, only Rakitic – along with Arthur Melo – has left the club, but Suarez and Vidal look likely to leave before the transfer window is closed.
And then Messi dropped his bombshell that he was unhappy at the club and wanted to leave. After 11 days of uncertainty Messi finally said he would stay last Friday, in an interview in which he was strongly critical of club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and his recent leadership.
The striker said the only reason he wasn’t leaving was that he didn’t want to take the club he loved to court. While Messi’s commitment on the pitch is not in doubt, Koeman and Bartomeu may wonder whether keeping a player who has voiced his displeasure in such terms is a new problem.
Bartomeu was another victim of the chaos, calling new elections for the club presidency for next March, and although he won’t stand, an election campaign which promises to be extremely acrimonious is probably the last thing the club needs in mid-season.
With off-field issues dominating the summer, Barca have so far spent very little time in addressing their on-field problems, and Koeman will be grateful that due to their European commitments they won’t actually start their league campaign until September 26, by which time new faces may have arrived.
The almost certain departures of Vidal and Suarez should help rejuvenate the Barca squad, with young attacker Francisco Trincao and midfielder Miralem Pjanic the only signings to date.
Philippe Coutinho also returns after his loan spell with Bayern Munich and could be important if he can finally recapture his Liverpool form, while Carles Alena will also look to re-establish himself in midfield, but so far there are no signs of players who can offer reliable cover to veteran central defender Gerard Pique or left-back Jordi Alba.
The only real grounds for optimism at the moment at the Camp Nou is that the departure of Suarez will allow Antoine Griezmann space to play in the role he was signed for, while Ousmane Dembele could also turn out to be a potent attacking threat if he can finally leave his long list of serious injuries behind him.
Elsewhere, the hope is with youth, with two names standing out: midfielder Riqui Puig, who was one of the few pieces of good news last season, and Ansu Fati.
The 17-year-old broke into the Barcelona side last season, and has since become the youngest player ever to score for Spain’s national team. Although it would be wrong to burden him with the tag of being the next Messi, that is probably what many are thinking and it may be on the shoulders of the unhappy veteran and the young pretender that Barca’s hopes will rest this season.