What’s going on at Barcelona? LaLiga leaders in turmoil
Football has a short memory. Barcelona’s three consecutive classic Victories were quickly forgotten on Wednesday when they were blown away by Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg. A second-half hat-trick from Karim Benzema and a goal from Vinicius Jr helped Madrid to a memorable 4-0 win at the Spotify Camp Nou as they set up the final against Osasuna.
Barca coach Xavi Hernandez made a brave face after the game. There was no anger, as was the case after last season’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich, but rather an acknowledgment that his side were beaten by the reigning European champions and a nod to his pre-match comments that Madrid due to their success on the continent, were favorites despite Barca’s 1-0 lead in the first leg.
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Xavi also insisted that elimination against Madrid won’t affect Barca’s season. They have already won the Spanish Supercopa this year by beating Madrid in the final and after last month classic Victory in LaLiga, 11 games to go, 12 points clear at the top of the league. A first league title since 2019 is on the horizon and Xavi’s record (P79, W50, D14, L15) is impressive, but off the pitch Barca are in turmoil.
Prosecutors in Spain have leveled corruption charges against the club for allegedly buying favors from referees – what UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin this week described as one of the most serious problems in football he can remember. The financial woes (€1.3 billion in debt) that have surrounded them for years continue as LaLiga force them to annul star midfielder Gavi’s new contract at the end of March due to strict financial fair play rules. In total, the club need to save €150m to meet the salary cap before Gavi (he’s a free agent this summer) can sign or sign new players. The daily public battles with La Liga president Javier Tebas, the delayed clean-up of the Camp Nou and the possibility of Lionel Messi’s return are all distractions they could do without. So what’s going on at the club right now?
Can Barcelona achieve their goals on the pitch?
It sometimes feels like Barca only act in extremes. They finished 13 points behind Real Madrid last season and won just one Copa del Rey in the last three seasons. Twelve points ahead of the Supercopa this season means a massive boost for the team. But Wednesday’s defeat, coupled with early exits from the Champions League (in the group stages behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan) and the Europa League (beating Manchester United in the knockout stage of the play-offs), raises questions about their standing among the best teams in Europe.
Barca’s consistency in LaLiga has been impressive. They’ve only lost twice in 27 games and conceded just nine goals – the only goals leaked at the Camp Nou were a penalty and an own goal. The basis for their lead at the top of the table was conceding nine goals, thanks to a new back five from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and defenders Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo. Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde. There were goals and exciting offensive performances – striker Robert Lewandowski is still the league’s top scorer at 17 – but there were also disappointments with the performance of strikers Raphinha, Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres, while winger Ousmane Dembele was injured for over two months .
Three classic Back-to-back wins in 2023 had inspired belief that they could not only beat the teams they were meant to beat in the league, but could once again compete with Europe’s best. However, Wednesday’s hammering raises doubts about next season. Barca have conceded 20 goals (and nine in five meetings against Madrid) in 10 games across Europe and in the Copa del Rey semi-final against Madrid. It’s a notable contrast to LaLiga, albeit due to injuries to key players at key moments.
A La Liga title should be enough to justify last summer’s €150m+ transfer spending for Lewandowski, Raphinha and Kounde (Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie came for free) – which only came thanks to the triggering of a fourth financial lever and the sale of others Club wealth – but the prevailing sentiment is that there is still a long way to go before Barca can count themselves among the European elite again.
What is the impact of the chaos off the pitch?
The sense of reeling from euphoria at a result isn’t helped by the constant soap opera off the pitch. While the headlines should be about Barcelona blazing a trail to the title, it’s instead about paying the former refereeing committee vice-president or terminating midfielder Gavi’s new contract due to the salary cap. Those things haven’t played out on the pitch yet – and Xavi says they won’t even be discussed in the dressing room – but they could soon.
Prosecutors in Spain have leveled corruption charges against Barca and two of their former presidents for allegedly buying favors from referees. Barca admit to paying ex-referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira’s firm over €7m between 2001 and 2018 but say it was for ‘technical reports’ on refereeing and that they never bought influence. According to LaLiga president Tebas, Spanish football is facing its biggest reputational crisis ever, while UEFA has launched an investigation into the issue and, unlike LaLiga (which missed the Spanish legal window two years ago), is unstoppable from a potential sporting sanction pronounce
Tebas, meanwhile, continues to fight with Barca over several other issues: first, Gavi’s contract situation and the two are also at odds over the European Super League, which Barca back together with Madrid and Juventus.
“Alone against everyone” was written on a banner held up by fans before Wednesday classic as they sang anti-Tebas chants.
Elsewhere, Barca’s money troubles and financial uncertainty around the globe have delayed funding for the Camp Nou rebuild. The club are moving ahead with plans to refurbish their old stadium this year and plan to move to the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic next season (a move that will cost them over €90m a year) while the work is carried out but that is pending completion of funding for the €1.5 billion project. A loose deadline of March 31 was set for financing, but this passed without being met.
Where do you go from here?
Barcelona will use LaLiga’s success as a platform to continue to build. They will seek continuity in the figure of club legend Xavi as manager – president Joan Laporta has already announced plans to extend his contract, which expires in 2024 – but try to refresh things on the player side. How this is possible is up for debate.
Barca were in a similar position last summer and were still able to spend over €150m on signings thanks to the sale of future TV rights earnings and a stake in the in-house production company. Real Betis were reported to be considering something similar and LaLiga responded by introducing eight new rules to limit how much asset sales impact future salary margins.
Regardless, Barca continue to target signings via sporting directors Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff. They are mainly looking for free agents. ESPN have already revealed that there is a verbal agreement to sign Athletic Club defender Inigo Martinez and are in negotiations to sign Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan when his contract expires. Both players, aged 31 and 32 respectively, would add depth and experience, while Barca also have the option to sign Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco on a permanent basis for €15m.
There is also interest in signing Messi from Paris Saint-Germain when his contract expires this summer, sources have told ESPN, although there is no offer yet. Fans chanted his name in the 10th minute of Wednesday’s game, just a week after Barca vice-president Rafa Yuste confirmed the club had been in touch with the player’s camp.
However, everything depends on LaLiga’s financial fair play rules. As of today, Barca still can’t register the new deals signed by Gavi, Ronald Araujo and Marcos Alonso, let alone register new signings. A report has even claimed that Barca have offered Martinez and Gundogan a clause allowing them to loan out and earn the same salary agreed with them if they are unregistered.
So before there are ins, there must be outs. Captain Sergio Busquets is one of the big earners off contract this summer but the club are keen for the 34-year-old midfielder to stay, albeit on a reduced salary. Experienced left-back Jordi Alba, an unused substitute against Madrid, has a contract until 2024 but is firmly behind teenager Balde in Xavi’s plans. In terms of transfers, Barca might be forced to make some difficult decisions. In an ideal world, loanees Clement Lenglet, Samuel Umtiti and Abde Ezzalzouli, in addition to some of the first-team fringe players, would go permanently for reasonable fees to raise money. In reality, they may have to be open to offers from other players.
In attack, they’re stacked on the right wing, with Dembele, Raphinha and Torres all favoring that position. On the left, Ansu is struggling to show his pre-injury potential. His father Bori has said he should go to regular football but are Barca ready to give up the player who took over Messi’s No10 shirt and has been hailed as a generational talent for club and country? He’s still only 20, so Barca can be positive. Pedri (20), Gavi (18), Balde (19), Kounde (24), Araujo (24), De Jong (25), Dembele (25) and Christensen (26) are young and form the backbone of a talented team.
Recruiting around that base has to be smart as a repeat of this season and failures on the big stage next year may not count as a success. It all just depends on what happens off the pitch and their financial stability once the transfer window reopens.