Marc-Andre ter Stegen spent most of the last three months out of action. After a dispiriting August night in Lisbon – Bayern Munich 8 Barcelona 2 – the Barca goalkeeper underwent knee surgery.
In his absence, his club underwent various invasive procedures removing much of their leadership, although by the end of his first 90 minutes back, Ter Stegen could hardly help thinking how very little has changed.
Without him, Barcelona might have conceded four or five Dynamo Kiev goals at Camp Nou on Wednesday, the German keeper reminding anybody who had forgotten that, on form, he is peerless.
He made half a dozen high-class saves against a Dynamo missing six players because of positive coronavirus tests ahead of their trip to Catalonia in the Champions League.
At first, they looked horribly undermanned, carved apart and thankful to their third-choice keeper, Ruslan Neshcheret, for limiting Barca to a single first half goal.
By the end, Gerard Pique’s second-half header was the only difference in a 2-1 struggle of a win, Barca peaking early and then slumping alarmingly.
For Pique, the evening was much like the story of the club’s trajectory over the last few years. “It is obvious the tendency is downwards,” the club’s most candid dressing-room spokesman said, “and that every year we have got a bit worse. But we have been through a lot of changes”.
One of them took place 10 days ago, when the unpopular president Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned, heralding elections for his successor early in the new year. Two months earlier, a new manager, Ronald Koeman, was appointed. And the most important episode that Barcelona's brilliant goalkeeper watched from the sidelines was Lionel Messi trying and failing to leave.
Thanks to ter Stegen, Barcelona have maximum points in Europe so far. Domestically they are stuttering. Koeman has overseen Barca’s worst start to a La Liga campaign for 18 years, and they take on Real Betis on Saturday from a position in the bottom half of the table, albeit with matches in hand, and with a mere two points from the last 12 they have contested.
Koeman's frustrations are animating his touchline theatrics. At Alaves, where a nervous error from Ter Stegen's deputy, Neto, put Barcelona 1-0 behind last weekend, the Dutchman fumed as his players squandered chance after chance before and after Antoine Griezmann scored a long overdue goal. It finished 1-1.
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Four days later, more wastefulness had Koeman pacing, agitated, about his technical area again, Griezmann among those whose finishing was wayward against Dynamo.
But it was the imprecise passing and the lack of control that most perturbed him. Koeman, a hugely influential Barcelona player in the late 1980s and 1990s, knows better than most that careful use of the ball and domination by possession are what Barca regard as a trademark. “We left too much open space,” he said of the scare against Dynamo. “We have to be better when we don’t have the ball.”
Koeman is the third different man to take charge of Barca this calendar year, and must look at an imminent presidential election as a mixed blessing.
The dressing-room will be a happier place now that Bartomeu’s board are gone, but a new overlord very often means a new manager. One of the early favourites to be voted in as the next president, the businessman Victor Font, would like Xavi Hernandez, the former Barca captain now coaching Al-Sadd of Qatar, as part of his staff.
Font says he can imagine Xavi in a management role while Koeman continues in the dugout. That, though, would assume the Dutchman was thriving. A Barcelona manager who has lost his first clasico, at home, against Real Madrid, and won just two of his first six Liga games can hardly be said to be thriving.
He is yet to see his superstar score a goal from open play, either, Messi’s four from this season having all come from the penalty spot.
Granted, he captain was the fouled player for two of those penalties and his performances under Koeman have so far encouraged no suspicions Messi might not be as committed or capable of brilliance after his failed bid to leave.
What Messi has not seen is enough change around him to alter his view that Barcelona are far from the team he used to steer to regular European Cup success and long unbroken sequences of La Liga titles.
“It’s natural that we’re not considered top candidates,” said Pique. “All we can do is work hard, and the results will follow.”