Two and a half months ago, at the end of the 2012/13 season, it seemed likely that Barça would make at least two or three summer signings to strengthen the first team squad. However, with just four days to go until Barça’s opening game of La Liga 2013/14 only Neymar has been brought in, and if no more signings are made there will be a serious doubt about the depth of the squad, especially in defence.
Buying a centre-back should have been a priority from the beginning, but the board and Technical Director Andoni Zubizarreta preferred to secure the signing of Neymar. Since then, perhaps due to too much back-slapping for the Neymar deal, they have failed in their pursuit of a top class defender.
Admittedly, the market is not easy, but one of the problems has been that we have gone for players belonging to clubs who have no need or desire to sell. Added to this, Tito Vilanova’s apparent obsession with Thiago Silva left the club with less time and fewer options when PSG made it clear the Brazilian was not for sale.
Attention recently turned to Chelsea’s David Luiz and Liverpool’s Daniel Agger. Again the problem is that neither English club really wants to sell, so unless we make a ridiculously high offer neither player is likely to come. Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen has also been cited as a target, but as seen in the Gareth Bale summer saga, Spurs are not a club to sell cheaply.
Today’s Sport reports that another option could be PSG’s 23-year-old Mamadou Sakho who has played 14 times for the French national team. A left-footed centre-back who can also play at left-back, Sakho is looking to leave the French champions due to the strong competition for a place in central defence from Thiago Silva, Alex and new signing Marquinhos. A bid of around €12-14 million might be enough to convince PSG to sell, however, there are two problems with this deal: 1) If Sakho is looking for more playing time to improve his chances of being taken to next summer’s World Cup then he may prefer to sign for a club that will play him as first choice, which is unlikely at Barça, and 2) Barça may feel that Sakho does not have the quality to improve on what we already have.
Tata Martino has been reported to be happy with the Barça squad as it is. This may be a tactic from the club to keep the prices down during any possible transfer negotiations or it may just simply be the truth. It is likely that Martino has been impressed by the quality of player that he has encountered in his new job as it is bound to compare favourably to the squads he has coached in the past. There is a worry here though about his lack of experience in European football. Is it possible that he underestimates the strength of the opposition that Barça may face this year?
The preseason gave us little chance to assess our possibilities. After losing the first friendly to Bayern Munich, it might have been more useful to play another game or two against strong opposition, rather than the teams we faced. Admittedly, the success of Spain and Brazil in the Confederations Cup combined with an early start to this season’s Liga meant many of our players have had little preparation for the task ahead, and the situation hasn’t been helped by the unfortunate late change of coach.
Even so, Barça are still the bookmaker’s favourites to win La Liga this season while we are second favourites, behind Bayern Munich for the Champions League. Neymar will offer something extra in attack to add to Messi’s brilliance, and with Alexis, Pedro and Tello fighting for the other place in attack, we look very strong in this department. In midfield we may have lost Thiago Alcántara but Sergi Roberto has shown in a promising preseason that he has the qualities as a box-to-box midfielder to give us something different. The 33-year-old Xavi may not be able to play in as many games as before but he will still be vital in the big fixtures, and with Busquets, Song, Fabregas and Iniesta we look well covered in this area. The main problems of course are in defence. We may have eight first team defenders but there is a definite doubt about the centre, captain Carles Puyol is 35 and has suffered a string of injuries in the last couple of years. If either Piqué or Mascherano gets injured we are going to feel the pressure as there are still slight doubts over the consistency of fourth-choice Marc Bartrá.
Whatever the strengths of our squad, this season’s Liga, more than ever, looks like being a two-horse race between Barça and Real Madrid. The exodus of Spanish players leaving the country continues with the likes of Soldado, Navas and Negredo preferring the cooler climate (and wages) in England. The need to sell players may not be a problem for Barça and Madrid due to the huge difference in their earnings from TV money and marketing reach compared to the other Spanish clubs, but there is a danger that the lack of competitive matches in La Liga may lead some fans to lose interest which in turn would affect the big two’s spending capacity. Last season’s title certainly lacked some emotion due to Madrid throwing in the towel so early. Hopefully this time round, Tata Martino’s Barça versus Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid will prove to be a more exciting contest.