Javier Mascherano Signing to Power Barcelona to European Glory?

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Javier Mascherano Signing to Power Barcelona to European Glory?

L'Ultim Encaix. "The Last Piece Of The Jigsaw", ran Tuesday's headline in the sports section of Catalunya's leading newspaper, Avui.

Avui was referring to the news that Argentine defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano would join the Blaugrana by the end of the week for a fee in the region of €20 million, following protracted negotiations with Liverpool over the player's transfer.

Catalan sources suggest that this will be the final acquisition for Barcelona, with only the futures of outcast trio Martin Caceres, Alexsander Hleb, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be resolved.

It is thought that AC Milan officials used the occasion of the Trofeo Joan Gamper to thrash out terms on a deal to take Swedish striker Ibrahimovic to the San Siro for the player's third spell in Serie A.

Although at the time, it was uncertain whether there was a rapprochement—Milan wanted a loan deal with an option to buy the player at the end of the year, Barcelona were looking to recoup at least half of the €80 million which the original deal was worth—it seems that an agreement has been finalised this morning for the €40 million transfer of the player.

This is an important move for Barcelona, in particular.

Despite the initial disappointment that ''Ibra'' did not justify his hefty price tag, fans will recognise that the move was necessary to fund the Mascherano move and balance the squad. The board will relish the incoming funds as they look to offload some of the business's enormous debt.

From Milan's viewpoint, they will feel they have bought a player with excellent ability and a proven goalscoring record. They will now look to strike a deal with Tottenham Hotspur to sell Dutch forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for €15 million to help pay the fee owed to Barcelona.

Now that the transfer frenzy is cooling off, what are Barca's chances of staving off competition likely to come from Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid to retain the La Liga title and regain the Champions League trophy from Internazionale?

Excellent—the answer in simple terms.

Because while Mourinho is clearly an excellent tactician and a big personality, he has a lot of catching up to do in order to instill the same sense of confidence and identity and the same industry as that which has been achieved by local hero Pep Guardiola over at Camp Nou.

Because while Internzaionale were impressive in last year's premier European club competition and have one of the world's in-form players in Wesley Sneijder, they will not be the same force as they were under Mourinho, as proven by their disappointing European Super Cup defeat to Valencia.

Because while Barcelona have not been particularly busy in the market this summer, they have retained possibly the finest club or country squad ever to grace football and have added the star of the 2010 World Cup, David Villa, to their ranks.

In trouncing Sevilla 4-0 last week at home, the Catalans won their first trophy of the season.

The performance was masterful, mesmeric. Nothing less than what anyone expected: Leo Messi ran amok, Xavi's distribution and vision was exemplary, Sergio Busquets protected his defence with mastery.

But in truth, another week I may have been describing the performances of Bojan Krkic, Andres Iniesta, and Seydou Keita. Such is the strength and versatility of this squad Guardiola has created.

Further good news to that of the team's comeback victory over Sevilla and Mashcerano's signing came in the form of a favourable Champions League draw.

FC Copenhagen, Panathinaikos, and FC Rubin Kazan will all need to concentrate on taking as many points from each as possible. None has enough quality to take anything from Barca, either home or away.

In fact, Guardiola could probably rest his entire first team for the duration of the group stage and still feel confident of progression. Not that this is either his or the players' mentality. No. Eighteen points will be the aim: a clear message to the likes of Chelsea, Internazionale, Manchester United, and Real Madrid that Barcelona is still THE team to beat in Europe.

But what of other contenders?

Real Madrid lack firepower and stability, Arsenal lack consistency and experience and must travel much farther to face their opponents, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will concentrate more on snatching the Premier League back from Chelsea than on success in Europe, Internazionale are simply not good enough to repeat their success of last year under a manager who does not speak Italian and whose powers are on the wane.

That leaves Chelsea, Barcelona's main rivals for this year's UEFA Champions League.

The Stamford Bridge outfit have the appetite, defence, goalscorers, manager, and support required to go all the way. But they do not have the mentality of the Catalans: Iniesta, Puyol, Valdes, and Xavi have just won the World Cup with Spain. Leo Messi is the best player in the world. David Villa is the best buy of the summer.

This all adds up to another triumph for Barcelona and Josep Guardiola, another year of contemplation and inquisition by Europe's other not quite superpowers. 

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