In Good Conscience

Barcelona are unravelling and change beckons

If this week has shown anything in the Champions League it is that no coach has the power to win unless his players do it for him.

Barcelona were crushed 4-0 in Paris in a game in which Lionel Messi gave the ball away and did not once penetrate the Saint-Germain penalty area. Reports immediately emerged (in a pro-Madrid paper) that Messi will quit his boyhood club just as soon as his contract expires next year.

Arsenal evaporated, going down and out 5-1 in Munich from a position of equality at half-time. As Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez et al succumbed, the helplessness of Arsene Wenger was written in his face, and in his slumped body.

The disconnect between players and manager will surely hasten the end to Wenger's 21-year tenure with the Gunners. And end Luis Enrique's short, proud, eight-trophy, three-year term as Barca's head coach.

With spineless disregard for their colours, the players surrendered and some, no doubt, will be looking at escape routes from Shanghai to Saudi Arabia which, for heaven's sake, has just lured a referee, Mark Clattenburg, from the English Premier League.

Money, money everywhere, and not a drop of gratitude to ease the fans' despair.


Lionel Messi’s long-term future at Barcelona is uncertain. If he leaves, the club will lose a star whose appeal is bigger than the team he plays for. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

If Luis Enrique has fractured the midfield way of controlling the football, who might "fill the breach" until Xavi is considered the coach of his beloved club? The media frenzy is in overdrive.

Barcelona's collective supine display (and not just Messi's) was as abject as one can recall from the team that has defined the beautiful game these past 12 years. In that time Messi, who was taken to La Masia, the Barca academy, when he was a sickly child of 13, has collected 28 trophies.

The club president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, will try everything to keep him. But if the die is cast, if among other things Messi's losses to the Spanish tax authorities convince him and his father to run down his contract and move, where might he end up?

Paris Saint-Germain would be one suitor, Manchester City possibly another.

It is no coincidence that they are clubs bankrolled by Arab states - PSG by the royal family of Qatar, and City by the rulers of Abu Dhabi.

Forget for a moment the Russian money at Chelsea and elsewhere. Forget the new Chinese lore and the winding down riches of the few who go to the US.

The concentration of petrodollars and glamour is still with giant European clubs.

It is so embedded that hardly anyone raised the suspicion that the meek capitulation of Barcelona in Paris happened between two teams that are heavily incentivised by the same source.

Qatar owns Paris Saint-Germain, lock, stock, and barrel.

The Qatar Foundation, and later Qatar Airways, has adorned Barcelona's famous Blaugrana shirt since 2011.

After this season, Barca will switch shirt sponsor to the Japanese internet giant Rakuten, which will pay €55 million (S$82.96 million) a year for the privilege.

That, for sure, gives millions of reasons behind Bartomeu's belief that Messi is the DNA, the brand if you like, to Barcelona's worldwide appeal.

Does one player make a team? Absolutely not. Can one player's appeal be bigger than the team he plays for? Absolutely he can, if he's Leo Messi.

Two players have left the club in recent years when their time was up. Carles Puyol was a fantastic leader, if not always a fabulous defender.

Xavi Hernandez was the pass master, the metronome whose ability to orchestrate the play (and to find Messi with the ball) was, alongside the mercurial Andres Iniesta the fulcrum of the so-called tiki-taka pass and move style.

Where is Xavi now? Playing out his days in a backwater where Pep Guardiola ended as a player and cut his teeth as a coach - in Qatar.

I have spoken to Bartomeu about Barca's future. Xavi is in his mind as a player who, like Guardiola, came through the academy inured to the Johan Cruyff way of possession and pressing football.

Xavi articulates Barcelona technique more than any man, including Guardiola. At 37, this may be too soon for him, but the appointment after next is viable.

So, if Messi is to be talked into staying, and if Luis Enrique has fractured the midfield way of controlling the football, who might "fill the breach" until Xavi is considered the coach of his beloved club?

The media frenzy is in overdrive. Luis Enrique's cycle is on a downward spiral. Three major trophies (La Liga, Champions League, King's Cup) in his first season. Two (La Liga and King's Cup) in his second. The probability of only one (King's Cup) in the third and final year of his contract.

The 3-2-1 isn't a record of failure. Bypassing the midfield, slinging the ball up to the trident of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar has brought torrents of goals. But the essence of Barcelona, the beauty of its mesmeric midfield topped off by the strikers, will require a senior coach to manage the next phase.

Ernesto Valverde, currently at Athletic Bilbao, Eusebio Sacristan at Real Sociedad and Ronald Koeman of Everton all fit the profile as former Barca players who know the system.

Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentine who coached Chile to win the Copa America and is now managing Sevilla, has the obvious credential that he shares the same nationality as Messi.

Even Jurgen Klopp and (another Argentinian) Mauricio Pochettino are on the media shortlist, if not, yet, the Barcelona boardroom.

Could Luis Enrique survive this season's unravelling?

He is as likely to walk away and to spend another gap year surfing in Australia as he is to contemplate more time at the Camp Nou.

"It's not difficult to explain," he said in Paris. "Our opponent was better from the start. From the first moments they pressed us more, created chances. We were clearly inferior."

The collective we, said on behalf of Messi, Iniesta, Neymar, will not be tolerated in Catalonia where Barca is, to quote its motto, More than a Club.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'Barca are unravelling and change beckons'. Print Edition | Subscribe