Atletico Madrid’s shock defeat at Levante and Real Madrid dropping two points at home to Valencia means we still don’t know who’s going to end up lifting the La Liga Trophy this season. What we do know is that it is all still in the hands of Atletico. If they get four points in their last two games, including the visit to Barcelona, then it's theirs.
But, whatever happens and whoever ends up with the title—and it could still be Barcelona despite everybody, and I mean, everybody, players and coaches at the club, giving up—it cannot disguise a simple reality.
This is a Barcelona at the end of an era and in need of a complete overhaul, and with Tata Martino not keen on the task, all eyes seem focused 450 miles due west on Celta Vigo and their manager, Luis Enrique, the man that many thought should have got the job when Tata was appointed.
He will be the next manager of Barcelona.
It will fall to the Asturian-born former Real Madrid, Barcelona and Spanish international player to wield the axe, and it promises to be the most testing of tasks following a sticky season for Barcelona both on and off the pitch.
Even ignoring for a moment the "how much did Neymar cost" scandal, the UEFA ban on transfers—temporarily suspended, pending appeal—and the obvious discontent of many of the players, there are many things that have occurred that have contrived to make this a bad year for the Blaugrana.
Enrique is going to have to create a plan that incorporates the Barcelona style of play while still adapting to the way that football is evolving. He is going to have to look for stronger, more robust types of players, not unlike the Kokes and Vincent Kompanys of this world, that can show strength as well as skill in equal measure. What is also needed is a forward that can prove strongly and effectively, as well as offer a viable alternative. Not a regular one but one that can add new layers to the Barcelona attack.
This year, all the major physical duels have been lost by Barcelona, and they now need to incorporate a different type of footballer without betraying their basic philosophy—Keita, Yaya Touré, Rafa Márquez, Edmilson, that kind.
The golden generation is on its last legs, and there is nothing coming through from the B-team that is of similar or sufficient quality.
The full-backs have been playing, wrongly, as wingers—instead of attacking from deep, spending much of the time just sitting on the flanks, without giving life to the attack. Dani Alves has spent much of the last three months crossing the ball to no one in particular.
In central defence, defenders, while more than willing to show just how good they were when bringing the ball out, sometimes forgot that the real reason they were there was actually to defend. Up front, wingers need to realise they will have to fight like lions to create space for Lionel Messi with a mixture of pressure and overlapping or else Barcelona face spending yet another year in limbo.
Nothing will alter much in midfield, although the talk is that while Andres Iniesta will carry on as before, Xavi will gradually take more of a backstage role before eventually becoming a vital member of the coaching team. In fact, Xavi is seriously thinking of leaving in the summer to do like Pep, seeing Barcelona from distance, learning from other clubs. But he has not taken the decision yet.
So just what will Luis Enrique bring to the table should he get the job?
First and foremost, he knows the place, the mentality, the whole club, back to front, something that Tata Martino, even though a clearly intelligent and sensible man, definitively didn’t.
It’s fairly safe to say that, while he has not had unqualified success as a coach, he is no shrinking violet either. He was actually on the verge of taking the job as coach of Nastic of Tarragona, with Pep Guardiola pencilled in as his assistant, although it never happened. He was also Txiki Begiristain’s original choice as coach of the Barcelona B side before he changed his mind and gave it to Pep.
When Pep moved up to the first team, it was Luis Enrique that succeeded him, announcing that, ”I have come home. I finished playing here and now I will start coaching.”
He led the Barcelona B side into the play-off positions, although they were ineligible to compete in them, and with two years left on his contract, he walked away before signing a two-year deal to become head coach at Roma.
Failure to take the Italian side into Europe meant that he walked away from the club with a year remaining on his contract before becoming Celta Vigo’s manager in June 2013.
The biggest question mark will be just how he will handle the massive egos of some of the "cracks" like Neymar and Messi and whether or not he will be there for the long haul and not walk away as he did at Roma.
Character-wise, he is a cross between Mourinho and Guardiola, alternately prickly and thoughtful in equal measure while also tactically astute, pragmatic and always aware of the club’s obligation to produce a good product as well as the results for its adoring fans.
Will he succeed? Time will tell, but it will be fascinating to see him trying.
By the way, Thibaut Courtois is generally regarded as the finest young goalkeepers in the world. Barcelona, according to sources close to the president, were offered him for €20 million. To say the player was keen on the move doesn’t even begin to describe his feelings; he was positively gagging for it.
Barcelona, in their wisdom, turned it down because they had already signed Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and in the process, effectively passed up a chance of solving their goalkeeping situation for probably the next 10 years or so.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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