BARCELONA • Barcelona coach Luis Enrique's decision to remove any suspense over his future by confirming he will step down at the end of the campaign after three trophy-filled but turbulent seasons at the Nou Camp was met with surprise yesterday.
"Goodbye leader," said the front page of Catalan sport daily Mundo Deportivo in reference to Enrique's announcement which took place on the same night Barca displaced Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Normally a combustible character, the 46-year-old calmly explained his reasoning for not seeking to renew his expiring contract after a 6-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijon on Wednesday.
The Spaniard cited the daily grind of the pressure as Barca boss and insisted he needs time to rest.
"Luis Enrique leaves as he has always been, faithful to who he is: Unpredictable and indomitable," said Barcelona-based newspaper Sport. "His announcement took almost everyone by surprise in a decision that was strictly his."
Possible replacements for Luis Enrique
JORGE SAMPAOLI, 56
The Argentinian, who is leading Sevilla's Spanish Primera Liga title charge this season, is the bookmakers' favourite for the job at the Nou Camp.
He won the Copa America with Chile against his home country in 2015.
His intense pressing style of football would be one that is suited to Barcelona's attacking philosophy.
ERNESTO VALVERDE, 53
He has a wealth of experience in Spanish football, having taken charge of Bilbao, Espanyol, Villarreal and Valencia.
The Spaniard has also won three league titles in Greece with Olympiakos.
He plays an attacking brand of football with his Bilbao side and could also continue bringing out the best in Barcelona's attacking trio Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
RONALD KOEMAN, 53
The Dutchman is one of the leading candidates for the role despite being less than a year into his job at Everton.
He is a former Barcelona midfielder, and the Spanish club had previously appointed Dutch managers in Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard and Louis van Gaal.
He has in recent years said that he would be "delighted" if he were to manage Barcelona one day.
ARSENE WENGER, 67
The Frenchman was seen as a potential candidate last month, especially given the uncertainty over his future at Arsenal.
Yesterday, when asked about the Barcelona link, he insisted his preference is to stay at the Emirates Stadium, adding: "I am not looking for jobs of other clubs or jobs of other people."
It is likely he will sign the two-year extension offered by the Premier League club.
But it was the timing of the news rather than the decision to leave that shocked the most.
"In the summer he already told us he was considering this could be his final year," said Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
The conclusion has merely been precipitated by a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain two weeks ago. That result leaves the club needing a historic comeback in next week's second leg to avoid elimination from the Champions League at the last-16 stage for the first time in 10 years.
A GAPING HOLE
We were all left a bit open-mouthed.
IVAN RAKITIC , Barcelona midfielder, reveals how stunned he and his team-mates felt when Luis Enrique told them he will not be their manager next season.
Enrique told the players his decision just minutes before going public at the end of his post-match press conference on Wednesday.
"We were all left a bit open-mouthed," admitted midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
However, undercurrents of disagreement with major figures in the dressing room have been a feature of Enrique's time in charge.
Captain Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets criticised his tactical set-up in the demolition by PSG.
A bust up with Lionel Messi in January 2015 nearly cost Enrique his job after just six months in charge.
Instead, he went on to win eight trophies in the last three seasons. Only the two greatest coaches in Barca's history - Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff - have won more.
Enrique's haul could even rise to 10 as Barca face Alaves in the Spanish King's Cup final on May 27 in what is likely to be his last match in charge.
Barca also hold a one-point lead over Real in La Liga, but Zinedine Zidane's men still have a game in hand after Wednesday's 3-3 home draw with Las Palmas.
Guardiola paid tribute to Enrique's three "unbelievable" years in charge.
"As a Barcelona fan, I'm sad that we'll miss the perfect trainer for Barcelona," he posted on his official Twitter account.
"His three years there they have played unbelievable football."
Bartomeu had previously spoken of his wish to keep the man who made more than 200 appearances for the club as a player between 1998 and 2004, but he must now look for a new manager.
Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli is the early favourite to take charge next season after leading the Andalusians to an unlikely La Liga title challenge and into the Champions League last 16 in his first season in Spain.
"We will work with discretion and from July 1 we will announce the name of the new coach," said Bartomeu.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN