Sunday 2 August 2009

The New Barça takes shape – slowly

The new season for FC Barcelona has finally taken off. With all their stars back in training the full squad plus a couple of youngsters is currently in the United States as part of their pre-season build up. So far there have only been a few changes in personnel. Sylvinho retired and Hleb and Cáceres have left the club for Stuttgart and Juventus respectively. Gudjohnsen may also be leaving if he can find a suitable club. As for newcomers there has been a great deal of media flurry, but little in the way of real transactions.

At present Barça have just three new players, and one of them may not last long. This is Henrique, a Brazilian centre back who was signed last season, but was loaned out to Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen. He is now back at Barça, but according to media reports has yet to fully convince Pep Guardiola. The first completely new signing was a surprise – another Brazilian, left back Maxwell, who signed for about €5 million from Inter Milan. Maxwell has previously played with Ajax so has plenty of experience playing in Europe. This looks like a good piece of business for Barça as Maxwell should provide not just emergency cover for Abidal, but should be a real challenger for the left back slot.

The big signing so far has of course been the Swedish striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović, who has come from Inter Milan in a complex deal which involved Eto'o going in the other direction. The total deal is reckoned to be around €65 million, which is a lot of money. Barça will pay about €45 million and the other €20 million is what Eto'o was valued at. Only time will tell how this deal will work out, but Eto'o is a hard act to follow. Zlatan will need to score a lot of goals and important goals at that to even match Eto'o's record let allow beat it. However by all accounts Zlatan is an exceptional player with apparently exquisite touch. Guardiola justified the deal by saying that there was no feeling between him and Eto'o. He used the word in English. Boy, Guardiola sure has balls! You get rid of the club's greatest goal scorer because of a lack of feeling! However, all in all this should work out as a good deal for Barça as the team does need to be shaken up a bit and Zlatan is a very good striker.

Everybody expects that there will be more signings. A wide left player to challenge Henry, a midfielder and a centre back are the three positions that Guardiola would like to strengthen. However that are not that many options available. The great dream was Frank Ribéry, but Bayern Munich want around €80 million. Liverpool's Argentinian holding midfielder, Mascheranno and Arsenal's Cesc Fábregas (an ex Barça youth player) are also on the wanted list, but again the asking price is in the astronomical sphere. Also neither club is really willing to sell anyway. Barça are also apparently interested in Shakhtar Donetsk's Ukrainian international centre back Dmitro Chygrynskiy. The asking fee in this case is “only” €25 million. However Chygrynskiy has now played in a Champions League qualifier so Barça would not want to pay anything like that for someone who would be ineligible for Europe. Their interest in signing another centre back clearly shows a lack of confidence in Henrique. A fall back option is to use one of their own young centre backs, either Marc Muniesa or Andreu Fontás.

Midfield is probably where the team most needs to be strengthened. Hleb has gone and both Keita and Yaya Touré will miss a considerable part of the season when away on international duty at the African Nations Cup. In the case of Touré, Guardiola can always use Rafael Màrquez as the defensive midfielder as he has often played there before. For an attacking midfelder, the club may once again have to rely on home grown talent in the shape of Jonathan Dos Santos. Only 19 years old, Jonathan is already played for Mexico's under 21s.

Up front it is a similar story. With Ribéry discarded there are few options of guaranteed class available. As in previous seasons, Iniesta can always be relied upon to deliver in the wide left position and of course there is the option of using one of their own youngsters, either Pedro Rodríguez or Jeffren Suárez.

The new Barça is taking shape and no doubt there will be a few surprises before the season officially starts. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the financial position of clubs like Barça. The local Barcelona press are always full of stories about who Barça are about to sign for some astronomical sum and at the same time they frequently state that the club has only a limited transfer budget. No explanation is ever given as to how the club can afford such fantastic outlays. Another bewildering feature of Barça's tranfer policy is their recent ventures into buying a player only to immediately loan him out before he even sets foot inside the Camp Nou. This happened last year with Henrique, signed for €8 million and loaned out to Bayer Leverkusen. If he doesn't make the grade this season what happens – do they try to sell him on? At what price? This year they have done it again, but at a significantly higher price. Another Brazilian, this time a young striker, Keirrison has been signed for €14 million from Plameiras and promptly loaned out to Benfica. I guess the reasoning is that young players from another continent need time to ajust to Europe and European football. If they develop you then have a top class player for not too much outlay. Doesn't seem to have worked yet. Anyway good luck to both Henrique and Keirrison.

So far the pre-season has gone well and if Guardiola can get in a couple of really good signings then the coming season may go pretty well.

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