The ‘vast expectations’ of Barcelona weigh on Lionel Messi and Co as they host PSG
Barcelona are a club under fire. Criticism is the norm, even when the team are at their best.
Former manager Bobby Robson recalled fans booing after his side won a game 6-0 because they had not played in the right way, with flawless attacking and passing football.
Johan Cruyff, the man Robson replaced, still resides in Barcelona and is usually on hand to articulate any criticisms.
A more contemporary figure, Paul Scholes, was in Valencia to watch Barca get a last-minute winner recently, and said: “They were a ghost of the side they had once been.
“They still pass the ball relentlessly, but that old drive and tempo are not nearly as urgent. The breathtaking speed and penetration have gone.
“When I try to find a way of summarising the attitude of the team, and of some longer-serving individuals, I keep alighting on the word ‘bored’.”
Scholes’s points would naturally be rebutted by any of Barca’s venerated stars. They may have won everything there is to win in club football, but they claim they are still hungry to win more.
Spain’s team said exactly the same before the World Cup, in part because they have to. They could hardly say they were sated and heading to Brazil to make up the numbers, but their coach, Vicente del Bosque, spoke of their lack of hunger only after they had been eliminated.
If Barca’s drive, even subconsciously, is not what it was, then we are not likely to hear of it until the players have moved on.
Barca’s match-going fans are harsh judges, but their opinions are also informed.
They showed their displeasure toward current club president Josep Bartomeu and his sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, by booing them, while lavishing Lionel Messi with praise after he became the Spanish Primera Liga’s all-time scorer recently.
Bartomeu is bearing the brunt of the discontent, though he has inherited many problems.
Barca, once perceived to be “more than a club” for ethical reasons, are now mired in several legal battles, ranging from Messi’s alleged tax evasion to their recruitment of younger players and the messy signing of Neymar.
Former president Jose Luis Nunez, who ran the club for 22 years starting in 1978, is in jail for bribing tax officials.
Espanyol fans have longed mocked that Barcelona sold out to shirt sponsors in Qatar, and when Barca fans hit back during Sunday’s 5-1 league win against their neighbours, it also earned them a fine from a football federation intent of cleaning up violence and discriminatory chants.
Ahead of tonight’s Uefa Champions League game at home against Paris Saint-Germain, which will decide the winners of Group F, fans are not entirely enthused with the season so far under new manager Luis Enrique. Even though he has mostly fixed the defence, perceived to be the weakest area of the team.
The Catalans have conceded only seven goals in 14 league games, a superior record compared to the next-stiffest defence, Real Madrid (12).
Barca have toughened up at the back despite the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, signed from Arsenal in the off-season and yet to play. He is expected to be out for another five months, and the transfer was not exactly welcomed, with fans asking why the club signed an injured player.
The acquisition of Brazilian defender Douglas did little to placate fans, since he has barely played and reports from inside the training ground suggest he is not good enough to play for Barcelona. Barcelona are second in Primera Liga, two points behind a Real Madrid side who have won their last 19 games, and two points ahead of defending champions Atletico.
Barca were beaten by Real and lost at home to Celta Vigo, but disquiet permanently bubbles under the surface at Camp Nou, and only momentarily ceases when they destroy Real Madrid or win the European Cup.
Expectations have also risen massively in the last decade. Before the 2006 European Cup triumph, Barca had lifted just one European Cup.
They have won three since and think that trophies should be hoisted every season. Finishing second is not enough, but as long as the team is in contention for the Champions League and Primera Liga crowns, the complaints can be tolerated.
There is no doubt, however, that talent levels have dropped since 2011, the peak of Guardiola’s great side.
Joan Laporta, the president who led Barca to their second and third European Cups, is set to run again in 2016. An ally of Cruyff, Laporta has been linked with bringing Jose Mourinho to Camp Nou. Laporta was involved in legal action against members of his current board.
Coach Enrique has issues of greater immediacy. PSG, the only unbeaten side from Europe’s major leagues so far this season, have already beaten Barca in France, and they did so without their star player and former Barca striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who should play tonight. While both teams have qualified for the knockout stage ahead of Ajax and Apoel, that much was expected.
Managing those vast expectations is the task for any Barca custodian, from the coach to the president.
BLANC WANTS A CLEAN SLATE
Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain lock horns tonight at the Camp Nou in their final Uefa Champions League Group A match, with the top spot up for grabs. Both teams have already qualified for the last 16 of the competition, but PSG travel to Spain leading the pool, with a one-point advantage over Barca.
“This is an important game,” Barca coach Luis Enrique said. “We want to finish first in the group. We will go out to win the game, just as we always do.
“However, we face a team that has the same aspirations as we do. We will be tested at both ends of the pitch.”
PSG are unbeaten this season and edged Barca 3-2 in France in September, despite playing without injured striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to take command of the group.
“We are looking forward to facing them again,” Enrique said. “PSG are candidates to win the Champions League and they already beat us in Paris. They won that game without Ibrahimovic.
“They really have a strong team, and now, with Ibrahimovic available, they are all the more powerful.”
Ibrahimovic scored twice against Nantes in Saturday’s 2-1 win that lifted PSG to second place in French Ligue 1, one point adrift of leaders Marseille.
PSG coach Laurent Blanc will have all of his players available, with the exception of injured winger Jean-Christophe Bahebeck.
Blanc is delighted with his team’s season so far, but believes his side will have to step up their game with respect to last weekend’s performance against Nantes if they are to come out triumphant tonight.
“We’re happy to have won against Nantes,” Blanc told PSG’s website. “But we will need to improve to get a win against Barcelona.
Saturday’s win was the 1,000th victory for the club, “which is great, as is the fact that we are still undefeated,” he said.
* Press Association
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Published: December 9, 2014 04:00 AM