It’s not been a good week at Can Barça. Last week’s 3-1 defeat at Real Sociedad, which left the team three points behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, was followed by the news on Monday that Barça had paid €13.1 million to the taxman in order to avoid the possibility of a larger fine for irregularities in the Neymar signing.
The club maintains its innocence in the Neymar case though it seems clear now that while the directors involved may have had the club’s best interests at heart, the ingenuity of their accountancy skills appears to be turning out costly. Quite a few of us flinched at the €57 million price tag for Neymar last summer as we had been led to believe he was going to cost €40 million. His excellent performances at the Confederations Cup made us readjust our valuation of the Brazilian and when he started well at Barça the deal began to look very good. However, his recent bad luck with injuries combined with irregular performances has reopened the debate as to his worth to the team. Now that his transfer is turning out to be even more expensive there is renewed pressure on him to prove his value.
The The board seem keen to move on for the Neymar saga so we have seen plenty of other stories filling the pages of the press this week. One report suggests Barça are keen to extend Tata Martino’s contract another year to 2016 which in my opinion might be a bit rash right now. Don’t get me wrong, I like Martino and believe he has generally done a good job considering the difficult circumstances of his arrival with the preseason already underway, I just feel we should wait until the end of the season before talking about contract extensions.
Other news from the board this week is the announcement of the voting system for the all-important vote on the €600 million project to remodel Camp Nou. The 118,578 members with voting rights will have the chance on April 5 to say yes or no to the question: Do you approve of the proposal for the new Camp Nou, for the ‘Barça space’ (Espai Barça) and the new Palau Blaugrana? For the project to move ahead to the next stage (another vote by the Assembly of Delegates) there needs to be a simple majority of yes votes with no specifications for the percentage of participation. Given the importance of the decision I can’t help feeling that the board is jumping the gun on this issue. They seem overly keen to push the project forward and the members are not getting the chance to consider other options.
Even with all the off-the-field activity the lack of a midweek game this week meant the press were busy speculating the future. Despite the club’s apparent support for Martino there are still doubts over whether the coach will be here next season. El Sport ran a poll asking for readers’ preferred replacement with Jurgen Klopp being the most popular followed by Luis Enrique. Just for good measure the same publication ran another poll asking who readers would vote for if presidential elections were called. The very close result between the top three of Bartomeu (23.2%) Agusti Benedito (21.8%) and Joan Laporta (20.9%) indicates the underlying division within the fanbase and suggests a very interesting presidential race when elections are finally called.
The papers have also been talking of possible summer signings with the big names of Arturo Vidal and Thomas Müller being mentioned. Martino is believed to have specifically asked for Juventus’s Chilean midfielder who would certainly add some dynamism to the team, but a bidding war is likely to push his price past €50 million. Müller, on the other hand, is believed to be looking to leave Bayern Munich and there are rumours that Barça may already have made contact with the player. One signing that has been confirmed is that of Croatian midfielder Alen Halilovic who at the age of 17 has already debuted in the Champions League with Dynamo Zagreb. The fee has been reported to be either €5.2 million or €7.2 million, according to who you want to believe, with an additional €4.8 million to be paid when the player reaches the first team. The left-footed Halilovic who can also play as a right-winger will join Barça B next season with the intention of making the jump to the first team in 2015/16. While it’s all very exciting when you hear people call him the ‘Messi of the Balkans’ we should remember he is only 17 and still has a long way to go to realize his potential. I look forward to watching how he develops next season.
With all this going on there has been little talk about tomorrow’s game with Almeria (Sunday 9 pm), and one could be led to believe the three points are already in the bag. Almeria are 16th in La Liga but they will be hoping to cause an upset. They have taken only ten points from their 13 away games this season but they have won at Betis, Valencia and Osasuna while we should also take as a warning their 2-0 home win over Atlético Madrid just three weeks ago. Midfielder Fernando Soriano has had to pull out of the trip to Barcelona at the last minute but coach Francisco Rodriguez has Barça loanee Rodri fit again after three months out with ankle problems. Rodri is Almeria’s top scorer this season with seven goals in fifteen games and he could return to the starting line-up tomorrow for a dream return to Camp Nou.
For Barça the apparent relative ease of the game should not deflect from its importance. Whether it feels like it or not, this is a must win game, not just because it is vital in the title race but also because anything other than victory would lead to a very turbulent week. Martino has named 18 players for the game with Jordi Alba returning after injury while Carles Puyol and Oier Olazabal come in for the injured Gerard Piqué (out for two weeks with a calf injury) and Jose Manuel Pinto (back problems). Afellay, Montoya and Sergi Roberto fail to make the list.
Following the eccentricity of Martino’s team selection last week it will be interesting to see how he plays it tomorrow. Bartra will most likely partner Mascherano in central defence with Alves and Alba restored as full-backs. Busquets should return to his defensive midfield role but then Martino will have to decide between playing two wide forwards supporting Messi or including an extra midfielder. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis and Neymar will again compete for four places in the team. Personally, if it were based only on form right now, I’d pick Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis and Pedro to play, however, it will be difficult to bench Xavi again after leaving him out at Anoeta while it could also prove useful for Neymar to start with the intention of getting the Brazilian back to his best. The players seem keen to put in a good performance in order to turn the page from last week’s defeat. Almeria could be in for a hiding.
Barça’s 18-man squad list: Valdés, Oier, Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Almeria’s 18-man squad list: Esteban, Julián Cuesta, Rafita, Torsiglieri, Hans Martínez, Trujillo, Dubarbier, Mané, Aleix Vidal, Marcos Tébar, Verza, Corona, Azeez, Barbosa, Suso, Oscar Díaz, Rodri, Jonathan Zongo.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Neymar.
Almería:Esteban; Rafita, Trujillo, Torsiglieri, Dubarbier; Verza, Azeez; Suso, Tébar, Aleix Vidal; Rodri.
Prediction: Barça 6 Almeria 0
Date: Sunday 2 March 2014. Kick-off 9 pm local time.