Barcelona may want to make up for the biggest collapse in Europe by signing the most expensive player in the world but a team that was by far the best in Spain is already significantly better.
After finishing 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid last season, Barca signed Atleti’s most dangerous player in Antoine Griezmann while Frenkie de Jong helped Ajax destroy Real Madrid in the Champions League and now he is in Catalunya too.
The question of whether Neymar follows will consume the rest of the transfer window but an attacking roster of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho hardly points to a need for a €222 million striker.
“I’m happy with the players I have,” said coach Ernesto Valverde on Friday. “Last year we almost had a perfect season.”
Even Griezmann, at €120 million, almost felt like an extravagance, an opportunity too good to turn down rather than a need to improve on 90 goals in 38 league games last term.
But the downward trajectory of Brazil’s Coutinho, whose status has shrivelled further following the club’s attempts to sell him this summer, means Griezmann already fits better now than perhaps he did in July.
So does an injury to Messi, who is likely to miss Friday’s curtain-raiser away to Athletic Bilbao with a minor tear in his calf, giving Griezmann the chance to bed in with Suarez and Dembele, and without the pressure of performing with his captain.
Griezmann will add depth but also goals and assists, presumably more at Barcelona than Atletico, where defensive demands were greater and chances to score less frequent.
De Jong may need more time to adjust, even if many view the 22-year-old as a ready-made alternative to Sergio Busquets at the base of the Barca midfield.
Too often Busquets was exposed last season, his lack of both speed and protection allowing opponents freedom on the break. De Jong, with Ivan Rakitic, Arthur Melo or the emerging Carles Alena, should bring more control, as well as creativity.
Meanwhile, Junior Firpo, bought from Real Betis, will jostle with Jordi Alba at left-back while Neto coming in from Valencia relieves Jasper Cillessen from the role of the frustrated back-up goalkeeper, after he went the other way.
Anfield memory lingers
Otherwise the key figures remain, not least Valverde, whose position as coach looked under threat when the collapse to Liverpool in the Champions League was followed by a shock defeat to Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey.
Messi backed Valverde publicly, insisting he was “practically blameless”, but disappointment still left a desire for change.
The Griezmann deal was completed, vice-president Jordi Mestre resigned and Patrick Kluivert replaced Pep Segura, the club’s sporting manager seen by many as responsible for a drift away in recent years from an emphasis on the club’s academy.
Anfield perhaps lingers too over the move for Neymar, the blockbuster Brazilian that Barcelona no longer need but might accept if it gives them a greater chance of finally winning in Europe.
Eight league titles in 11 years and four Copa del Reys in five has done little to eradicate the pain of repeated failures in the Champions League.
When Messi pledged to the fans this time last year to bring “that beautiful cup” back to Camp Nou, it hung over the club all season, as a statement of intent but also an indicator of priorities.
“The truth is it’s very difficult to say something today after last season no? But I don’t regret anything,” Messi said in a speech to the supporters last week.
“Eight titles in 11 years, for any club would be an amazing thing and for this one as well, it’s very important what we did.
“Perhaps it doesn’t get the credit it deserves and in a few years we will realise how difficult it was to do it.
“But everyone knows this club always fights for everything. This year won’t be any different.”
Success will again hinge on the Champions League. Again, it is a high bar to set.
Few teams are scrutinised like Barcelona. It is ‘only’ four years since their last triumph in the Champions League but following successive comeback calamities, Lionel Messi and company have felt the scalding heat from fans and pundits alike.
As such, it only seems right to pore through their personnel and assess their worthiness for the new season. So here you have it: each player reviewed and rated ahead of the new La Liga campaign, starting for the Blaugrana at Athletic Bilbao this Friday.
I’m sure you’ll agree with every word written. This is the internet, after all …
***** – top three in his position
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen His £12m purchase from Gladbach in 2014 is not talked about enough – what a steal. Superb shot-stopper with the distribution to match, his only peers are Atletico’s Jan Oblak and Alisson at Liverpool. *****
Neto Ideally Barcelona would have kept Jasper Cillessen but with the Dutchman pining for a first-team role, Neto came the other way from Valencia. He has been a solid piece to a generally stingy Valencia defence over the last two seasons but his distribution skills leave a lot to be desired. Injury will rule him out of the season’s start. ***
Nelson Semedo This is a huge year for the Portugal right-back. Sergi Roberto has been preferred at right-back for the majority of the last two seasons – rightly or wrongly – and Semedo has been guilty of the occasional defensive lapse. However, he is set to start the season as first choice and can provide the team with more balance as a natural option on the flank. ***1/2 (Potential)
Gerard Pique It was a tale of two halves for Pique last year. Simple mistakes littered a horrendous end to 2018, but he picked himself back up and forged a fine partnership with Clement Lenglet. Don’t mention the Liverpool match though … ****1/2
Jean Clair-Todibo The 19-year-old Frenchman certainly looks the part but there are rumblings that his progression is not going as well as hoped. Just two appearances last season – and there’s so much competition at centre-back. ** (Potential: ***1/2)
Clement Lenglet Samuel Umtiti’s knee injury handed his compatriot Lenglet the ideal opportunity and boy did he take it. The 24-year-old does the basics well and has the ability to spray long passes out from the back. Umtiti has a fight on his hands. **** (Potential: ****1/2)
Moussa Wague Rookie no more. The 20-year-old who turned heads for Senegal at the World Cup last summer is now an official member of Barca’s first-team squad. Overlaps on the right a joy to watch but defensively astute, too. *** (Potential ****1/2)
Jordi Alba Alba was as guilty as anyone for Barcelona’s Champions League shortcomings, but there are few players you’d rather have bombing on from the left. Undisputed first-choice but purchase of Junior Firpo should light a fire under him. *****
Samuel Umtiti What to make of Umtiti? It all depends on his knee. At his best he is calmness personified either on the ball or in pursuit of it. However, now he is under pressure from Lenglet – still only 25, this season could define his future. ****1/2
Junior Firpo One of the few constant performers from Real Betis’ helter-skelter 2018/19 season. He struggled in the recent pre-season game with Napoli so expect an acclimatisation season. Alba’s not a bad tutor to learn from. ***1/2 (Potential ****1/2)
Ivan Rakitic The Croatian may be the fall guy as Frenkie De Jong’s arrival adds yet another body to Barca’s sardine tin of midfielders. The 31-year-old remains a quality player, but is he dynamic enough compared to the new crop? ****
Sergio Busquets The 2018/19 campaign certainly wasn’t the Spaniard’s crowning glory, but it would be harsh not to afford him the benefit of the doubt. Competition with De Jong may well eke the best out of him once more. ****1/2
Philippe Coutinho Very good player, wrong fit. Not quite a winger in a 4-3-3 and not quick of thought enough to replace Andres Iniesta, Coutinho simply needs a team to let him be the main man. That won’t happen with Messi around. Could be gone before September. ****
Arthur The Brazilian struggled a touch at the back-end of last season from a physical standpoint, but it was an otherwise fine debut season for the Brazilian. Returns from Copa America on high – you just want to see a little more production and Barca now have a surfeit of talented deep-lying midfielders. **** (Potential: ****1/2)
Rafinha Terribly unlucky with injuries and looks like he’ll finally be cut adrift with Valencia sniffing around. What could have been – has more of a direct skill set and is a bigger goal threat than many of Barca’s midfield men. **
Carles Alena Could Alena be squeezed out between De Jong’s arrival and La Masia darling Riqui Puig? He is the cookie-cutter metronome passer you’d expect, but has proved his left foot can fetch goals. At 21, he now needs more games and they’re beginning to look scarce. *** (Potential ****1/2)
Sergi Roberto A player any squad in the world would be delighted to have. Versatile, diligent and possesses more than a smidgen of class. He is set to return to his natural position of central midfield this season, though the competition couldn’t be tougher. ***1/2
Frenkie De Jong He was born in a different country but the Dutchman may as well have been made in Catalonia. Though Barca don’t truly need De Jong, his passing, dribbling, frame and tactical understanding all scream legend in the making. No team can pass up on a player such as him given the chance. ****1/2 (Potential: *****)
Arturo Vidal The Chilean has reportedly been full of grumbles ever since rocking up at Camp Nou last season over a perceived lack of game time. He is however more than a useful powder keg to possess if Barca’s midfield need waking up. ***
Riqui Puig Having turned 20 this Tuesday, Puig’s path to footballing manhood may take a temporary turn as a loan move is being discussed. He is a final third locksmith and, dare it be said, Iniesta’s heir. *** (Potential: *****)
Luis Suarez When he’s hot he’s sizzling, when he’s cold he’s glacial. Whether it’s the effects of age or not, Suarez is not the consistent force of yore. If the Copa America and pre-season is anything to go by – with three goals in three games – we’ll get the fiery version to start the season, which is handy given Lionel Messi’s injury concern. ****1/2
Lionel Messi A special six-star category for the footballer par excellence. There are only two worries with the Argentine. One, that he remains fit, and a calf tear – albeit minor – is not the best of starts to 2019/20. The other is the quality of his supporting cast. De Jong and Antoine Griezmann to be nominees for best actors in a supporting role? ******
Ousmane Dembele The man who has admitted to not knowing which foot of his is the strongest has the world at (both of his) feet. A more mature Dembele has reportedly been on show in Barca’s pre-season and now he has an attacking French frere in Griezmann around. Can he tear down thoughts of a first-choice ‘SMG’ trident in Ernesto Valverde’s mind? **** (Potential: *****)
Antoine Griezmann The World Cup winner developed into an out-and-out striker for Atletico Madrid and he’ll have to play a more fluid role at Camp Nou. For a player of his work-rate, ingenuity and demonstrable flexibility that should not be a huge problem. No defence in the world would want the 28-year-old, together with a rabid Suarez, bearing down on them. *****
Only Neymar could be pushed out of one major European club and the doors of two others swing wide open.
Through one door it’s a return to the club which harnessed the very best of his deep talent stores.
Through the other it’s a past which could have been but now could be. Real and Barca have battled for Neymar before and they do so again as Paris Saint-Germain look to offload the wantaway superstar.
From a playing perspective, having both recruited so well over the summer, neither really need him as much as the 27-year-old needs them.
Obviously other factors are involved, though, but what are they and is there sufficient rationale to break the bank for him.
Here, we look at the reasons for and against a mega move.
Why Real Madrid SHOULD sign him
Fear factor – Zinedine Zidane has so much quality in attack, but what Los Blancos have lacked since Cristiano Ronaldo departed is a player with genuine fear factor.
It’s a pretty exclusive category, but Neymar is in the bracket of players capable of leaving defences in disarray.
Reputation plays into the psyche of defenders and he has the skill to capitalise on any hesitancy, threatening to contort challengers every time he’s in possession.
Eden Hazard has the same effect as well, Vinicius Junior looks like he could one day join the club, but Neymar is one of the best in this regard.
Pairing him with Hazard is the stuff of fantasy, unless of course, your defending the two of them in which case it’s a nightmare prospect.
Market leader – Fans convulse, the board eats it right up. For a club like Madrid, appearances are everything.
While the remit in recent times has been to hoover up the best young talent on the planet, the opportunity to sign one of the current premier players is too lucrative to ignore.
Madrid lean on their hubristic profile more than any other team. A squad containing luxury assets and the world’s best stars is a huge part of the Galactico identity, and by extension, it’s why the club has such an enormous global fan base.
In the modern era, football fans – particularly those without a geographical tie to a certain club – are attached to individuals as opposed to teams.
When Ronaldo left, a big chunk of support was siphoned out of Madrid and pumped into Juventus. No doubt one of the biggest reasons why club president Florentino Perez is obsessed with bringing Neymar in, is because of the marketing potential.
Like it or not, Real’s money-making tentacles guzzle cash from across the globe and it is fundamental to their success on the pitch.
Excellence sells, and few have more clout than Neymar in this regard.
Why Real Madrid SHOULDN’T sign him
Kylian Mbappe – For the health of a certain farm animal inhabiting Barcelona, it’s probably best Neymar stays away from the Bernabeu…
All Luis Figo jokes aside, arguably the biggest reason not to buy Neymar is because he’s not even PSG’s most prized asset.
It’s no secret Kylian Mbappe is the long-term project, both for Madrid and even the player himself. The World Cup winner is a well-known Real Madrid fan, his childhood bedroom was, after all, wallpapered in Cristiano Ronaldo posters, and so it’s inevitable Mbappe will one day don the blanco jersey.
Considering there were suggestions of discontent this summer, Mbappe hinted at much when he received his French player of the year awards, it’s conceivable that the developing superstar could attempt to defect next year.
Adding Neymar to Hazard, both from a status standpoint and financial outlay would surely strangle Real’s clear advantage in ripping Mbappe from PSG.
If it’s a choice between one or the other, it’s a decision which can reach quicker than Mbappe’s electric feet.
Attitude adjustment – It’s not so much of an issue if he rejoins Barcelona because Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez have always been able to keep Neymar in check, but that level of respected seniority doesn’t exist past Zidane at Real Madrid.
In a dressing room full of egos, and perhaps Zidane is the centre of that culture as well, adding Neymar to the mix is like tossing an unpinned grenade.
With so much ego in one room, there is the unstable potential that they just all collapse in on themselves, leaving behind a personality blackhole.
This is not a stance without merit, Neymar’s time in Paris was defaced with problems off the pitch.
His enormous entourage, allegations of rape (later thrown out of a Brazilian court), frequent fall-outs with team-mates such as Edinson Cavani and Julian Draxler hardly make for an appealing presence.
Then there are the wage demands. Neymar would likely skewer the current structure and become the club’s highest-earner. Does his injury history and off-the-pitch problems really reflect that sort of remuneration? It’s a tough sell for Madrid’s current stable of stars.
Why Barcelona SHOULD sign him
MSN back online – There are two players not-named Messi with a legitimate claim to being Barcelona’s best player in recent years; Luis Suarez and Neymar.
There can be debate over which one was better and only personal bias decides it, but there is no argument as to the trio’s standing as the best forward line of their generation, maybe even in history?
The statistics and tangible success make for a compelling case to get the band back together. They had more hits than the Beatles, hammering in 364 goals between them from the start of the 2014/15 season when Suarez joined the club until Neymar left for PSG in 2017.
In two seasons, eight trophies were captured; two La Liga titles, one Champions League, a European Super Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup and three Copa del Rey triumphs.
Their warm friendship off the pitch made for a choreographed cold-blooded approach on it, the shared responsibility between three of the world’s best individuals melding for staggering success.
They each made the other better, Messi and Suarez in refining Neymar’s finishing, the Brazilian in turn taking the attention away from the duo to help expand their own games.
One of the explanations for Neymar’s decision to pull the plug on MSN was apparently because of Messi’s shadow, but perhaps now he realises the Argentine shone the brightest light on him.
Life after Messi – At Real, Neymar is capable of replacing Ronaldo, at Barca the same can be said of Messi.
For a long time Neymar was considered the heir to a throne which would one day be abdicated by the two dominant forces of this generation.
He was the third in command, a player coming into his prime as those two moved into the final phases of their career.
But since 2017, injury has led to stagnation and the opportunity for other worthy candidates to emerge, most notably Mbappe.
Return to Barcelona and not only is there a path of redemption, but also enlightenment. Messi is 32 years old, and although the cerebral Barca captain continues to evolve, the club has to begin planning for his eventual decline.
Neymar can be central to that transition. Ultimately, he made a bad choice, at the wrong time, but with the help of Messi there’s a chance to rectify that.
There’s no other player on the planet capable of filling the Messi chasm, Barca know that and maybe so, too, does Neymar.
Why Barcelona SHOULDN’T sign him
Low work-rate – As mentioned, Messi is getting old. What that means is that his workrate and general physical output has declined.
Now, for a player like Messi, having his energy stores reserved for attacking situations makes perfect sense. He drops in and creates from deep, wanders into dangerous positions between the lines, plus of course scores any and all manner of goals.
The team is set-up and built to allow Messi to dictate and decide games as his team-mates pick up the added workload.
Most of the time, it is to the collective’s benefit to cater for the individual, but can they really afford to add another player into the XI with a low work-rate?
Neymar is an outstanding attacking force. His 51 goals in 58 games for PSG is evidence that his output in front of goal has not declined.
But his defensive contribution is minimal and when adding in Suarez’s evident physical degradation, MSN all of a sudden doesn’t look quite so fresh.
Too many options – How many is too many? Depending on the make up of the offer it would take to bring Neymar back, be it players plus cash, Ernesto Valverde could be left with a very top-heavy outfit.
Granted, Philippe Coutinho may exit, perhaps even Ousmane Dembele, too, but it’s unlikely both will. That would leave Valverde with Antoine Griezmann, Suarez, Messi and one of Dembele/Coutinho alongside Neymar. All would want to start and all are paid the type of wage package equal to established superstars.
Options are good, too many options, though, is unbalanced can rapidly lead to disharmony. This is not FIFA, a console doesn’t factor in the human element of personality and ego, stacking a team with so many attacking talents is dangerous.
However, as previously said, when it comes to Neymar, common sense is nowhere to be seen from a purely football standpoint.