Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What lies ahead

It's less than two weeks until Sandro Rosell takes over from Joan Laporta as president of FC Barcelona. On the pitch the club is in brilliant shape, having won La Liga with a record 99 points, coming within a hare's breath of making a second Champions League Final in a row and losing just four games all season. The squad is young, only Puyol, Marquez, Henry, Abidal and back-up 'keeper Pinto are over 30 and most of them are signed to long term contracts. Added to this, the core of the team (Valdes, Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi) have come through La Masia. The signing of David Villa (scorer of two gols for Spain last night against Honduras) to an already potent attack is incredibly exciting. Pep Guardiola is one of the finest coaches in the game and he's pure blaugrana.

So what does Sandrusco need to address? In particular order, here are seven issues that our new President will have to get to grips with.

1. The debt

According to Rosell, Barça's debt is more than €500 million. Given the on-field successes of the Laporta era coupled with a relatively modest outlay on players (up to the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa), this is quite a worry. If they're this much in the hole while the teams beats all around them, what is the financial situation going to be like should they fail to win either La Liga or the Champions League in the coming seasons? What does it mean for new player acquisitions or even keeping hold of the ones we have?

For one it means that club cannot afford any more expensive mistakes like Chygrynskiy, Hleb or Cacares (more of that rabble later) or wild punts on flavour of the month Brasilian youngsters (step forward Kerrison and Henrique) only to loan them out here, there and everywhere before finally flogging them for a massive loss. So perhaps this millstone around their necks is a good thing.

It also means the proposed Norman Foster restyling and renovation of the Camp Nou will not go ahead. I'm in favour of this for a few reasons. The stadium doesn't need to be any bigger (the capacity was to be increased to 106,000, ridiculous considering it only sells out five or six times a year). Seats in the top tier are already closer to the moon than the pitch and the Camp Nou already as a five star rating from UEFA. It's no Emirates or Bernabeu in terms of luxury but nor is in bad shape. Rosell has said that he plans to revamp the stadium but has been short on specifics. Doing up the gaff can wait.

The biggest consequence of the debt is that the issue of shirt sponsorship will once again be on the table. Before the deal with UNICEF was signed the club were very close to an agreement with bwin.com (who would go on to sponsor Real Madrid and AC Milan). I'm really against there being a shirt sponsor. Not to get all Més que un club about it but I think it matters. Barça is about more than promoting beer or cars or fucking internet betting. Seeing the UNICEF logo on the blaugrana shirt makes me proud of my club. It's unquestionably a good thing, not just for the money they donate (a drop in the bucket of UNICEF's budget) but for the awareness it raises and the example it sets (look at Aston Villa and Acorns) I'd rather go without.

2. Cesc

Not since the Apollo 13 mission has their been a bigger mission undertaken to bring our boy(s) home safely. More tedious than a Dan Brown novel, I've made my thoughts on this clear before. Let's just get it done eh?

3. Don't let the door hit you on the way out

Why oh why did Barcelona ever buy Alyaksandr Hleb? Shocking average in his first season, farmed out VFB Stuttgart for his second, he's back again and with two whole miserable years left on his enormous contract. Hleb's not a bad player but he's not a very good one either. His head-down, running at defenses is completely at odds with Barça's style and he looked like a square peg in a round hole any time he played. Getting close to the €17 million paid for him will be nigh on impossible but he has to go.

Other players out tray are calamity prone hothead Martin Cacares (€15 million), mediocre right back Henrique (€8 million) and the semi-retired Titi Henry. Henry has one year left on his contract but he'll be let go on a free to whoever will have him. Post-match hugs and reminiscing about the good old days with Becks in the MLS beckon. Ex-Palmeiras forward Kerrison looks like spending another season on loan at Fiorentina though this may change given Cesare Prandelli is taking over as coach of the Azzurri after the World Cup and being replaced by Sinisa Mihajlovic (who did a very good job at Catania, getting the best out of ex-blaugrana Maxi Lopez).

Another potential departure is slow-motion-replay-but-in-real-time defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. Next to useless last season, making just twelve appearances (he was mercifully cup-tied and thus played no part in the Champions League), his agent has been making noises about his wanting to stay (the "learning Catalan" line always plays well at Barça). I don't know what to make of Chygrynskiy. He may improve (his is after all only twenty three) but with Puyol, Pique, Marquez and the resurgent Gabi Milito ahead of him, I don't see a way into the team for him. Maybe a loan elsewhere would be good for him but we all know where that leads...

4. Zlatannnn!

What do you do with your €69 million number 9 when you've just bought a player who effectively replaces him? There is a lot of talk about Ibra leaving what was an underwhelming first season. Left out down the stretch (Bojan was preferred and the team was much more fluid and quicker) and more often than not out of sync with the two other forwards, he's been labeled an expensive flop. This is not something I agree with and while one could quite rightly epect more from a man who cost almost €70 million, he did okay, better than okay in fact. Gols against Real Madrid, Arsenal (two of them), Stuttgart and Mallorca were hugely important and his overall play was more effective than he was given credit for.

Whether this means he's staying or not is another matter. For a start there are only two or three clubs afford him. AC Milan have been heavily linked but they don't have any money and he's not over the age of 33 so that's probably not a flyer. I'd like to see him stay but the potential for a Rooney/ Berbatov situation, where your first choice centre forward and his replacement have such completely different playing styles that the team is dysfunctional when your main man is out. Villa is unquestionably more suited to Barça's system than Zlatan and more to the point, Barça hardly ever change their style of play to suit Zlatan (balls over the top like those he ran onto against Arsenal are very rare) so he's left high and dry.

My feeling is he'll stay another year if only because selling him would be a huge admission of failure and would see them take a financial hit they just can't afford.

5. La Masia

Rosell made some curious statements in the run-up to the elections about Barça's youth system. Firstly that it wasn't producing enough players (!) and secondly that the underage teams were chock full of Africans and the local lads weren't getting a look in. He's dead wrong with both of these. Let's look at some of the players that have come out of La Masia in the past few years. Messi, Pique, Fabregas, Bojan, Pedro, Jeffren, Gio dos Santos, Sergio Busquets and Fran Merida. Five play regularly in the first team, another is (currently) captain of Arsenal and one of the finest midfielders in the world. As for the others, Gio, though he has struggled at club level since he left the Camp Nou, is playing fantastically well for Mexico at the World Cup, Jeffren has made huge strides forward this year and Merida has just signed for Atleti from Arsenal. What more does he want?

Now, on to the coming-over-here, taking-our-jobs racist stuff. I've seen a few underage Barça games this last season (not to mention Barcelona Atletic, who have one Nigerian guy. One) and I can think of about four of five Africans out of about fifty or sixty players. In any case, who cares? Why wouldn't these lads be at the club? We're not Athletic Bilbao. Traditionally West African players have ended up in France or Belgium but I don't see why the next Drogba or Toure couldn't come through the ranks at La Masia rather than Le Mans or Beveren. Speaking of Toure, that neatly takes us on to...

6. Ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya (to be sung to the tune of Crocodile Rock)

He's going isn't he? Probably to City of all places, where they can barely move for defensive midfielders. Yaya would be a big loss. Strong, dynamic, driving through the heart of midfield, linking well with Pique, Puyol and Xavi, versatile enough to play in the centre of defense as well as anchor the midfield, he's the complete modern futboler. So what on earth are we doing letting him get away? Seeing his playing time dramatically reduced this past season, injuries and the form of both Busquets and Keita leaving him sitting on the bench, the arrival of Cesc would only see him pushed further down the pecking order so I can understand his desire to leave. He's in the prime of his career (he's 27) and he wants to play. It's just a real shame it'll no longer be at the Camp Nou. I'll miss him.

7. The new Txiki

Finally, a word about Director of Futbol Txiki Begiristain, who is almost certain to be replaced. He's done a fantastic job under Laporta but I feel both his closeness to the outgoing President plus the number of duff signings in the last two years really count against him. Rosell will want to install his own man, though I have no idea who. I think Marc Ingla and Ferran Soriano are possible candidates to succeed Joan Oliver as Director General but as for the new Txiki, we shall see.

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