Barcelona are in a state of flux. Quique Setien was the temporary manager who has unexpectedly found himself in long-term control owing to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
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Since arriving as Ernesto Valverde’s successor, Setien has found himself in the middle of a civil war. Despite heading into football’s shutdown two points clear of Real Madrid in La Liga and still in Champions League contention, the squad he inherited is one in need of significant changes.
These are unprecedented times, with Barcelona announcing this week that for the first time they will sell the naming rights to the Nou Camp for one year in an effort to raise money for the fight against the pandemic – but who will be playing at Europe’s biggest stadium once football resumes? Sky Sports assesses what surgery is needed to the current playing staff.
What is the likelihood of Barcelona re-signing Neymar?
Despite winning two league titles, the Coupe de France and the Coupe de la Ligue since his £198m world-record transfer, it has been a failed mission so far for Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain.
With no Champions League winner’s medal to show for his efforts, the Brazilian failed to make the 30-man shortlist for the 2019 Ballon d’Or for the first time since 2010 – the very purpose of him stepping out of the shadow of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez nearly three summers ago.
Barcelona completed a deal to sign Ousmane Dembele for an initial £96.8m fee from Borussia Dortmund, but that was agreed in instalments. With the transfer potentially rising to £135.5m, Spanish football expert Graham Hunter says Barcelona’s quest to re-sign Neymar will be compromised by the club’s requirement to cover outstanding payments.
Hunter told Sky Sports: “Barcelona were throwing absolutely everything at getting Neymar this summer before the huge economic impact the shutdown has had on the club. Every club has got different degrees of capacity to cope with this crisis, but Barcelona’s ability to pay what they already owe in instalments for Dembele and Philippe Coutinho will be damaged.
“The fact has already been established that they had to take a loan [£31.5m] to sign Antoine Griezmann [for £108m from Atletico Madrid last summer]. They were already in a difficult situation in terms of how they could afford Neymar. I’m not sufficiently au fait with the ownership of Paris Saint-Germain to understand whether to any degree the current oil crisis might change the economic outlook and the enterprise that owns the club.
“I genuinely believe Barcelona are completely committed to buying Neymar. I genuinely believe they told Messi that he will get his wish to be repatriated with Neymar this summer, and I genuinely believe they’re using that as part of their means of persuading Messi that he should stay.”
What is the latest on Messi’s relationship with the club?
For all the talk of brand new signings, there is no escaping the state of institutional crisis at the club that deepened this month when six board members resigned, citing disagreements over how it is being run by president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
Relationships had been strained for some time – and among those to step down were two of the club’s four vice presidents, Emili Rousaud and Enrique Tombas.
Any new arrivals would enter an environment where tensions have been brought to the surface, in particular by Bartomeu’s handling of the pay cuts imposed on the players, which prompted Messi to be so openly critical. Keeping the Argentine happy would seem to always come back to the pursuit of Neymar.
Hunter continued: “Messi’s allowed to leave for free at the end of each season, as per the terms of his contract, so there’s a complete commitment in terms of commerce and sport at Barcelona to try and get Neymar back – and I completely believe the player wants to return.
“I feel he thinks that football life is better at Barcelona, and life, in general, is better here. He wants to play with Messi again, and above all, I feel that now he can see a period eventually when Messi moves or retires, and he can ascend the throne and becomes the number one player.”
“But I’m a little bit stumped over how Barcelona achieve this. Who knows how much more the club will earn from this season’s Champions League? I reckon they’ve already earned upwards of £70m, but they would have been calculating – particularly at 1-1 [from the last-16 away first leg with Napoli] – that there would be more games.
“The club earns an enormous amount from an influx of tourists buying tickets at each home game, while the tour of the stadium and museum earns the club on average in each of the last six or seven years €25m – but it’s been shut for the last six weeks.
“Barcelona have been affected financially and I don’t think they were in a particularly robust place to handle it, so if PSG say Neymar isn’t leaving, I don’t think there’s anything Barcelona can do to change that.
“PSG may turn around and say, ‘we’ll take Griezmann for Neymar’. At which point, Barcelona would do a deal. But if it’s just Barcelona wanting to buy at a lower price, and Neymar saying he wants to go, then the ball is completely in PSG’s court.”
Is Martinez the fall-back option?
Sky Sports reported this week that Barcelona have begun offering players to Inter Milan in the hope of striking a part-exchange deal for Lautaro Martinez.
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The Argentine striker is one of Barca’s top targets this summer but the financial impact of the coronavirus means they are unlikely to meet his £97m (€110m) buy-out clause.
Inter have offered the 22-year-old improved terms and an extension on his contract, which expires in 2023, but the player has rejected this option, according to Spanish publication Marca. Martinez is reportedly keen to join Barcelona and personal terms are not expected to be a problem.
The forward is viewed as Suarez’s long-term replacement having emerged as one of Europe’s most exciting goalscoring talents with 11 goals in 22 Serie A appearances this season.
Whether Barcelona are capable of bringing both Neymar and Martinez to the club this summer is not out of the question, but it will almost certainly depend on current players being willing to head in the opposite direction.
Does anyone else at Inter interest Barcelona?
Martinez is not the only Inter Milan player who has been linked with a move to the Catalan giants.
Croatian newspaper Sportske Novosti reported this week that Barcelona and Real Madrid are both keen on signing Marcelo Brozovic – with Mundo Deportivo firming up Real’s interest in the 27-year-old.
Brozovic has featured four times against Barcelona in the past two seasons after the two clubs met in the Champions League, and the midfielder has become a key component at Inter under Antonio Conte – scoring three goals in 23 Serie A games so far this season.
Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal have both previously been linked with a move in the other direction, and having featured in six seasons at the San Siro following his move from Dinamo Zagreb, Inter believe this summer could be a good moment to receive a sizeable transfer fee for a player whose contract does not expire until June 2022.
Do Alena and Arthur have Barcelona futures?
Sky Sports understand Barcelona have begun offering players to Inter in the hope of striking a part-exchange deal for Martinez – and one of those players is young midfielder Carles Alena.
While right-back Nelson Semedo is said to be open to the move, Alena still holds out hope that he can force his way into Setien’s plans when he returns from a loan spell at Real Betis this summer.
Several members of the club’s hierarchy are said to be reluctant to sell another academy graduate – and Marca reported this week that neither Barcelona nor the player have taken a decision about his future.
Inter had also asked for the chance to sign Brazil midfielder Arthur Melo – but Barca have so far declined. The 23-year-old arrived in Catalonia from Gremio in 2018 for an initial fee of €31m but he has failed to kick on since his encouraging first season.
Frankie de Jong’s presence has played a fairly large part in limiting his opportunities, and Mundo Deportivo claims that Tottenham have joined Inter in enquiring about his services.
This is where another part-exchange deal could be struck, as Barcelona want to sign Spurs’ £54m record signing Tanguy Ndombele. Tottenham have been offered the chance to sign centre-back Samuel Umtiti and Semedo as part of a player-plus-cash arrangement.
Will Xavi replace Setien this summer?
Perhaps most pertinent in the evaluation of Barcelona’s immediate business is whether Setien will be the man tasked with revitalising the squad.
Diario AS reported in February that the Spaniard’s appointment only came after Barcelona were turned down in their advances by several other candidates.
Ronald Koeman was also approached, but the Dutchman was still committed to his job with the national team, especially with Euro 2020 then on the horizon.
Former midfielder Xavi had been the first-choice replacement, but he turned down the role because he did not feel it was the right time to move away from Al Sadd.
Speaking to the Transfer Talk podcast in January, Hunter said: “They went out to Qatar to try and persuade Xavi, who they should have known wouldn’t come, couldn’t come.
“They tried to persuade Ronald Koeman, who had already told them previously he wouldn’t join them. He thinks he’ll coach the Netherlands to the European Championship and victory this summer.
“They sussed out what Mauricio Pochettino had previously said, that he’d rather go back and work on his farm in Argentina than go and coach Barcelona, they tried to persuade him.
“Setien is an attractive coach with a (Johan) Cruyff mentality but he is fourth choice, at best. It has been a risible Keystone Cops affair from start to finish.”
Massimiliano Allegri was also linked to the post while Barcelona B manager Francisco Garcia Pimienta was under consideration before Setien was appointed on a two-and-a-half-year contract.
Hunter claimed four months ago that Xavi could eventually return to Barcelona as head coach after the club’s presidential election next year – but the coronavirus pandemic has offered football a natural window in which to reset.
Does Coutinho have a future at Barcelona?
Chelsea are reportedly “close” to a deal with Barcelona to sign former Liverpool forward Coutinho.
The Brazilian left Anfield in a £145m deal back in January 2018 and is currently on loan at Bayern Munich, but it is thought the German club are unlikely to take up the option to sign him on a permanent basis.
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Gary Neville highlighted on The Football Show this week the footballing and financial reasons that cast doubt over the proposed move.
Neville said: “Cesar Azpilicueta has apparently been in talks with the Chelsea board over the past three weeks as they’re looking for a 10/15 per cent pay cut.
“For the Chelsea players to hear in the next breathe that the club are looking to buy Philippe Coutinho for £75m… it’s like, ‘what one is it?’
“If I was a player now I’d be looking at a wage deferral that potentially turns into a cut at a certain point in time. But if the club increase their budget or sign a player for £75m, you have to pay our money first.
“I’d say ‘you can’t go and sign a player for £75m and then say you can’t pay us fully’. It’s just illogical, it doesn’t make sense.”
Coutinho’s agent, Kia Joorabchian, has told Sky Sports News his client would “love” to come back to the Premier League, but questioned what the financial conditions of all clubs would be following the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, the consequences of the pandemic could be what keeps Coutinho at the Nou Camp. If the club are unable to secure their transfer targets, it is increasingly likely that Setien will get his wish of wanting to work with the player.
Having struggled in search of a defined role under Valverde – as uncomfortable on the wing as he was through the middle – the feeling is that Barcelona would have to drastically change their system to suit one player if he were to come close to justifying his fee.
Can Puig replace Coutinho creativity?
For all the talk of potential incomings and outgoings at Barcelona this summer, highly-rated central midfielder Riqui Puig could yet emerge as a natural replacement for Coutinho.
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There have been some suggestions the 20-year-old has considered leaving the Nou Camp in order to seek first-team football either through a loan deal or a permanent switch, but Catalan paper Sport reported this week that the player has decided his future is very much at his boyhood club.
Celta Vigo and Granada have both expressed interest, and with the likelihood of Barcelona’s B team not playing in the Segunda next season, the club will actively consider loan offers for players on the fringes of the first team.
Puig is considered by many Barcelona supporters as one of the brightest talents to emerge from La Masia in recent years, and some have been critical of the limited game time he has experienced, first under Valverde and then Setien – he has featured for just 22 minutes in La Liga this season across two substitute appearances.
Having described his first-team debut in a Copa del Rey clash with Cultural Leonesa in December 2018 as “a dream come true”, Puig could well prove to be the creative gem from within the ranks to soften the departure of Coutinho.
Out with the old, in with the new?
Suarez is ready to return to action if La Liga resumes this season following the suspension. The Uruguayan has missed 28 games after undergoing surgery in January.
Should he be allowed to feature in the remaining 12 La Liga fixtures, it could offer the Barca hierarchy the chance to decide on how urgent plans are to bring a freshness to the forward line.
While the temptation is to seek potential swap deals involving Neymar and Martinez, Setien has shown a keen interest in promoting young forward Alex Collado, in addition to midfielder Puig.
Speaking in February on the two academy graduates, the Barcelona head coach said: “They are two very different kinds of players. We try to think which player we need most at certain times of the game.
“They’re two very good players and they’ve both got chances to play. We’re getting to know them better every day. We’re seeing what they’re capable of doing for us in every training session. It’s a time of learning.
“With Riqui, there are a lot of players in the position where he would normally play but Collado, playing up front, he’s going to get chances. We’ll have to see how things go.”
Any other business…
It is not just across the forward line and midfield where Barcelona’s squad is expected to undergo surgery this summer. Barcelona reserve goalkeeper Neto is set to leave the Camp Nou after just one season and head back to Valencia.
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