A coach without authority, a coaching assistant that players appear to have no respect for, an incompetent board selling a player in the last month of the season because they have to balance the books, furious senior players sick of the shambles, a league title slipping away, and the possibility of a second sacking of a coach in one season – that’s the landscape at Barcelona as they go into their last six matches trailing leaders Real Madrid by two points.
The cooling break in the second half of Saturday’s draw with Celta Vigo was a keyhole into what’s happening behind the closed doors of the dressing room and at the club’s Joan Gamper training ground.
Assistant coach Eder Sarabia could be seen trying to address Lionel Messi but Barcelona’s best player – who has only scored once in the team’s five games since football’s return – turned away muttering something to himself and with no intention of listening to Sarabia.
Lionel Messi ignored instructions from Barcelona assistant Eder Sarabia (centre) on Saturday
During the cooling break of the draw with Celta Vigo, Messi blanks Sarabia and walks away
Coach Setien was looking on aghast, his fragile hold on this squad seems to be slipping away – he looks concerned but apparently clueless as to what to do about the situation.
The contrast with cooling breaks at Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid where every player hangs on every word of Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone is stark.
It’s not the first time a cooling break has produced such images. In the previous game against Athletic Bilbao, Ivan Rakitic could be seen waving a hand and walking away from Sarabia as Setien’s assistant delivered another instruction.
Gerard Pique was sat resting on a coolbox at the time. There also seems to be a disconnect between someone who has emerged as the team’s leader more so than ever this season, and the coaching staff.
Setien and Sarabia have always been on thin ice, with the players used to playing for Barcelona legends such as Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.
The pair were hired when the team were top of the league. Sporting Director Eric Abidal hinted it was the players who got previous coach Ernesto Valverde the sack, an insinuation that Messi reacted to furiously and publicly.
Quique Setien was appointed in January this year but already finds himself on the brink
Sarabia gives instructions to Ivan Rakitic during Saturday’s costly draw at Balaidos stadium
Setien and Sarabia have produced teams that played good football at Las Palmas and Betis but had not won anything and the former admitted when he took over that he was surprised to have been offered the job because his CV barely fitted the usual Barcelona coach profile.
Sarabia, full of ideas and confidence, has looked to grab the opportunity by the horns and has never held back when given the chance to get messages across to Jordi Alba or Pique in natural breaks in games. The cooling breaks have given him a greater chance to do that.
‘Players don’t like it when it’s the No 2 who does the talking in these moments,’ said experienced former Spain and Valencia keeper Santi Canizares as he watched a re-run of the drinks break moment on Spanish television on Sunday night.
Setien will not be helped by the fact that his changes late in the game against Celta Vigo seemed to contribute to Barcelona being pegged back late on, dropping two points.
The introduction of Antoine Griezmann and Arthur Melo for lively youngsters Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig only slowed the team down and it was Griezmann on the end of a poorly constructed wall that Iago Aspas bent the ball around for the late equaliser.
Antoine Griezmann has struggled to justify his huge fee since joining Barcelona last summer
Messi walks towards the halfway line as Iago Aspas is mobbed by his team-mates after scoring
Celta almost won the game with their last attack and Luis Suarez, who had scored twice, seemed to be quietly fuming as he faced the post-match interviewer and responded to a question about Barcelona’s awful away form – they’ve lost five and drawn five – by saying that it was something coaches should be analysing. Barcelona’s away form under Valverde was not great, but it has got worse under Setien.
In defence of the coach he is being asked to battle a boisterous Madrid with a depleted squad. Injuries to disastrous signing Ousmane Dembele, and midfielders Sergio Roberto and Frenkie de Jong have strained resources.
The board are hardly helping by selling Arthur. The Brazilian is now back in Barcelona having signed for Juventus on Sunday, but how committed will he really be having been hawked for the readies by Barcelona desperately needing to balance the books?
Make no mistake – his sale has nothing to do with football. In Barcelona’s much heralded ‘first-ever billion euro budget’ at the start of the season they allowed for income generated by the sale of players to total around €120m (£110m). They were a long way short of that hence the bizarre unofficial swap with Miralem Pjanic.
Arthur (in the white jumper) was captured arriving at Turin airport late on Saturday evening
Luis Suarez and Messi look less than impressed during last weekend’s draw with Celta Vigo
Barcelona will be able to put the money they receive for Arthur in their accounts (even though they won’t really have received it yet) and they don’t have to record the money they are spending on Pjanic until the next financial year.
It’s a clever finance trick, but it does nothing to help Setien who has had to deal with Arthur having his mind elsewhere for several weeks now. Only the professionalism of Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic have prevented them being in the same state of mind because they may also have been pushed out to bring money in.
Where all this leaves Barcelona will be clearer after their next two games when they face two of the division’s most in-form sides – Atletico Madrid on Tuesday and Villarreal on Sunday. If they win both those games they will still be in the title race. Pique knows they are not dead yet and he tweeted a call to arms on Sunday: ‘We are Barca and this still isn’t finished’.
But if they drop more points in those two games and the title really starts to slip away then the board will have a big decision to make.
There is a three-week gap between the end of the season and the start of the Champions League and that is more than enough time for a change to be made even if it’s just B-team coach, Javier Garcia Pimienta, taking over.
Long-term heir to the dugout, Xavi Hernandez, has again admitted he is preparing for the job but he will not take it in such chaotic circumstances under the current president.
Legendary midfielder Xavi Hernandez has again admitted that he wants to become manager
Barce defender Gerard Pique says they are still fighting for the title despite another slip-up
The idea that any coaches could be sacked in Spain in this 11-game mini-season was laughed off when it was first suggested but two have already been fired and the Barcelona dressing room might demand similar action to save their European campaign.
This has been coming for a long time. Barcelona won the last two leagues thanks to the brilliance of the Messi-Suarez partnership, some enormous performances from Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Pique, and the sober but respected stewardship of Valverde. But shortcomings have been exposed in the Champions League.
The club that has not had a really good transfer window since the summer of 2014, and has allowed too many young talents to escape.
The cracks are opening up now. The whole house will come down if they finish the season empty handed.
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