After season to forget, Barcelona faces difficult rebuild
It's been a long, long season for Barcelona.
Lionel Messi left in tears before it started. Ronald Koeman was soon fired. The team dropped out of the Champions League and into the Europa League, and then couldn't even come close to winning it.
The return of former great Xavi Hernández as coach and some savvy signings in January eventually led to some convincing wins, but the team that once dominated Spanish soccer failed to earn a title for the second time in three years.
Barcelona still has two league games remaining, but ensuring a second-place finish is really the only thing to play for. The club's focus is now to ensure that next season is an improvement.
That, however, may prove difficult.
Barcelona is still facing enormous financial difficulties that have already played a part, according to Xavi, in quashing any hopes it had of luring Erling Haaland, one of the biggest names on the market, to Spain.
"We just couldn't compete on an economic level. I wish him the best of luck," Xavi said about Haaland after Manchester City announced the signing of the young Norway striker on Tuesday.
Xavi and club official Jordi Cruyff reportedly met with Haaland in early March to try to convince him to come to the Camp Nou.
Barcelona's finances were ruined by the impact of the pandemic and the unsustainable spending of previous club president Josep Bartomeu. Its debt ballooned to 1.3 billion euros ($1.36 billion), leading the Spanish league to slash its salary cap this season to 97 million euros ($110 million) — more than seven times smaller than rival Real Madrid.
The club now run by Joan Laporta did extremely well in adding players to its squad midseason. Technical director Mateu Alemany secured the transfer of Ferran Torres from City, the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a free agent, and a loan deal to bring back Adama Traoré.
Aubameyang and Torres immediately clicked and solved Barcelona's scoring woes. Its surprising 4-0 victory at Madrid in March ended up being the sole highlight of a poor season. Otherwise, there was the ignominy of losing in the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in nearly two decades. The team then was beaten by Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals. It never competed with Madrid in the league title race, and was ousted from the Copa del Rey in the round of 16 by Athletic Bilbao.
To improve on those results, Alemany, Cruyff and Laporta have some big decisions to make within a very tight budget.
"This year was not positive because we didn't fight for titles and anyone who can come will be welcome," Xavi said. "The economic situation is what it is and players will have to leave for others to come. The situation is complicated, it is very difficult, but we have to get reinforcements to be competitive. That is a fact."
Barcelona is reportedly probing its chances of signing Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who is stuck in contract negotiations with the Bundesliga champions.
But it also must resolve several questions regarding players currently in the squad.
One of Barcelona's priorities is seeing if it can sign Ousmane Dembélé to a new, cheaper deal. Dembélé, whose contract is up at the end of the season, rejected offers from other clubs in January. Since then, he has become a critical piece of Xavi's attack. The Frenchman, whose contract is reportedly the highest on Barcelona's payroll after the exits of Messi and Philippe Coutinho, is set to finish the season as the Spanish league's top assist-maker.
The club succeeded in getting veterans Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti to all lower their salaries. The 24-year-old Dembélé may be a much harder prospect given his age and his tough-to-replace talents.
Barcelona also has to decide if it will pay Wolverhampton to make Traoré's move permanent. The winger did not play as much as expected so if the club can resign Dembélé, then it is less likely to keep Traoré.
Spanish sports media speculates that midfielder Frenkie de Jong and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen could be up for sale, if the price is right. The German keeper has underperformed for the past two seasons, while Barcelona has other options in midfield.
Amid so much uncertainty, the club has succeeded in providing Xavi with some stability by locking down two of its younger players that it hopes can be pillars for the future. Both Spain midfielder Pedri González, 19, and Uruguay defender Ronald Araújo, 23, signed new deals this season to tie them up until 2026.
The club is negotiating a new deal with Gavi Páez, who, along with fellow midfielder Nico González, provided some of the few bright spots for Barcelona this season. Nico was having a breakout season early on under Koeman, but once Xavi took over in November his minutes dried up. Now his future at Barcelona could hinge on the departure of De Jong.
Barcelona's way forward will also depend on the health of Ansu Fati, who at 19 has gone from teen superstar to being half forgotten because of his bad luck with injuries. He recently returned to the field and, if he can stay healthy, would seem to be a perfect leader for Xavi's rebuild.