For an extraordinary team accustomed to extraordinary circumstances, the past fortnight will nevertheless loom large in the archives of Barcelona’s history. On the Tuesday prior to their midweek game at home to Sporting Gijón, at the turn of the month, coach Luis Enrique admitted to the press that he intended to ‘take a rest’ and would not be seeking the renewal of his contract. Next day the team went out and battered poor Sporting 6-1, a few days after the 4-0 debacle in Paris had been mollified somewhat by the resilient 2-1 win at Atlético Madrid’s Calderon stadium.
The debate began as to the successor – a decision which tends to assume Papal proportions both in the Camp Nou and in the Bernabéu but one which is particularly crucial for the club now as it begins to contemplate a future without Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta, a transition that their next coach may have the unfortunate responsibility to both plan and manage. It’s going to require a special one, but not the one in Manchester, of course.
Meanwhile, Madrid conveniently stumbled at home to Las Palmas (3-3), the league looked open again, and after a 5-0 stroll at home to Celta the Catalans defeated PSG in an extraordinary match, itself worthy of a top place in club history. But as often happens in the wake of extreme football events, the protagonists came down to earth with a big bump and lost 2-1 up in the wilds of La Coruña. Barcelona are usually phobic about visiting San Sebastián, but both trips to Galicia this season have ended in defeat (they lost 4-3 at Celta too).
Cynics will say that there was an absence of a certain German referee in La Coruña, whereas more measured football analysts will point to tiredness, a hangover and Deportivo’s own need for points. The new-manager syndrome (Pepe Mel) might have helped too. Nonetheless, the result has once again changed the complexion of La Liga, especially with Sevilla failing to win a game that looked straightforward, drawing 1-1 at home to struggling Leganes. The newly-promoted team from Madrid’s suburbs have been improving of late but they seemed to offer no match for Sevilla in the Pizjuan. The subsequent slip-up means that Sevilla missed out on the chance of tucking up at the top, one point behind Barcelona. They may live to further regret this result, because their next game is a visit to Atlético’s Calderon.
One interesting consequence of these 12 days of destiny is that the post-PSG euphoria has failed to close the debate on how Barcelona should play out their final months under Luis Enrique. After all, they can still win the treble – or nothing at all, as the coach himself admitted last Friday.
Against PSG, perhaps considering the obvious need to score a bagful, the line-up looked something like a 3-5-2 formation, with Javier Mascherano’s return presenting the opportunity to go three at the back and stuff the midfield with playmakers, bolstered by the usual presence of Sergio Busquets. Sergi Roberto, the hero on the night, looks more comfortable on the right side of midfield than at full-back, where he played after coming on for Rafinha.
Against Deportivo, the system seemed to be more or less repeated, albeit with different characters. Arda Turan, Andre Gomes, Sergi Roberto and Denis all started in midfield with Busquets, leaving a two-pronged attack of Messi and Luis Suarez. Barcelona didn’t exactly play badly, but seemed to miss the inspiration of Neymar – on fire of late – and fell victim to Deportivo’s ability to counter attack. The Galicians are not having the best of seasons, but they occasionally come out of their shell and show their potential. High-flying Real Sociedad, whom they slaughtered in Riazor 5-1 in December, will attest to that.
I was at the rain-soaked Basque derby in Anoeta to see Athletic Bilbao win 2-0 and dent the host’s Champions League hopes, but it was interesting to see the approaches of the two coaches, both of them on the list of possible successors to the Camp Nou throne. Although Real Sociedad’s Eusebio has publicly removed himself from the candidacy and signed a new contract with the Basques, you get the impression that if he continues to impress in San Sebastián, the call will come sooner or later. He could still be bought out, if the Barcelona board really thought it worthwhile, but his counterpart in Sunday’s game, Ernesto Valverde, looks like the more plausible runner at present.
Eusebio, of course, was a playing member of the original Dream Team, whereas Valverde’s Camp Nou career was less extensive – twenty-two games over two seasons between 1988 and 1990.This was quite unusual, given that his previous seventy-two games had been at Espanyol. There has not been a great deal of direct traffic between the teams over the years. Indeed, Valverde managed the team for two seasons (2006-2008) and although this may seem difficult for La Liga initiates to understand, this ‘Periquito’ past may prove to be the only stain on his candidature.
The same has been said of Mauricio Pochettino’s credentials, since he has committed the far greater sin of playing 275 times for Espanyol in three separate spells, clocking up nine playing seasons with them and then compounding this misdemeanour by coaching them (successfully) for three seasons. Good though Pochettino may be, Valverde is more likely to be forgiven.
Valverde was born in Extremadura, but brought up in the Basque Country. His non-confrontational style may be attractive now to Barcelona, after three seasons of tension with the local press, cultivated with some passion by the prickly Luis Enrique – prickly partly because he is a naturally edgy character but also because he is from Asturias, and has never quite fitted in with the whole Catalan vibe. It’s a complex thing, and you’d need a Catalan to best explain it to you, but his popularity with the faithful has never quite attained the emotional heights that others on the bench have managed, whether Catalans or not. You get the feeling that he won’t really be missed.
Eusebio too, is from the unassuming school of coaching. He rarely criticises referees, never makes excuses, and is unfailingly self-critical. His press conferences lack the wit and edge of the Luis Enrique show, and are generally as interesting as watching paint dry, but he’s a nice guy. He’s not a Catalan either, but his long association with the club, for whom he also coached the ‘B’ team (curiously enough after Luis Enrique left the post) put him into the original frame, until his recent announcement. He may not move from Sociedad, but his name on the list shows how the Barcelona board are now thinking.
Another obvious candidate is Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, although his experience of La Liga is severely limited. In that sense he would represent a risk. Juan Carlos Unzue, Luis Enrique’s coach might stand a chance if recent pre-Enrique tradition is continued, passing the reins to the assistant coach – but you feel that the club wants an experienced pair of hands. Old boy Ronaldo Koeman might also be under consideration, having improved his image in England after his unsuccessful spell at Valencia.
Whatever happens, the new coach will need to be healthy in body and mind. The roller-coaster ride in the league this season is not for faint hearts, as evidenced on Sunday night when Real Madrid almost blew the chance to go two points clear with a game in hand. In the end, Sergio Ramos turned up yet again to save the day against Betis, increasing the possibilities of his eventual sanctification. When Betis took the lead in the Bernabeu, however, there must have been several sofa-sat Barcelona players who were beginning to dream yet again. This time there was no miracle, but you get the distinct impression that this interesting season is far from over yet.