Saturday 1 November 2014

Complacency takes Barcelona from the sublime to ridiculous

Pete Jenson

Published 16/04/2014 | 02:30

Barcelona's Lionel Messi plays with a rugby ball during a training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training camp, near Barcelona in Sant Joan Despi, April 15, 2014. Barcelona and Real Madrid will play their King's Cup final soccer match on Wednesday. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)
Barcelona's Lionel Messi plays with a rugby ball during a training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training camp

Barcelona have won 21 trophies so far this century. Number 22 could be lifted tonight at the Mestalla when they meet Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup final.

But it says everything about the way complacency has taken them from the sublime of the 2009-2011 period, to the ridiculous of this year's catalogue of embarrass-ments, that the Copa del Rey will not be enough to save their season.

Susceptibility to the kick up the backside always peaks the moment you lean forward to receive the medal and Barcelona should have known that, far from making them immune to criticism, success would put them more than ever in the line of fire – being everyone's favourite was always going to make them everyone's favourite target sooner or later.

But complacency has taken hold. They have gone from having three home-grown players on the Ballon d'Or podium in 2010 to having their Masia youth academy investigated for illegal signings of U-18s in 2014; and from praise at having signed Neymar for only €57m (£47m) to the revelation that, because of add-on contracts, the final price was closer to €100m.

The Neymar deal may be no murkier than countless other transfers involving a player with third-party ownership – and third-party ownership is not banned by FIFA.

If it transpires that income taxes have been avoided by paying companies related to Neymar, rather than directly to the player himself, then it will not be the first time such a tactic has been used either.

The club are also right to point out the contradiction inherent in rules supposed to guard against the abuse of children in football being used to punish the club with one of the most exemplary youth academy systems in the world.

Barcelona say it makes no sense that a teenager can move to a different country to study, but not be able to do so at a football club – with, as is the case at Barcelona's La Masia, a rounded education thrown in.

But complacency has again done for them. The simple relocation of a young players' parents under the pretence that there has been an unrelated change in their work situation has been enough to keep Fifa happy in the past.

Tonight Barcelona face Europe's most prolific forward line with an inexperienced 23-year-old defender, Marc Bartra, partnering Javier Mascherano in central defence.

Real Madrid will be without their top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, but Barcelona will miss the injured Gerard Pique far more.

Nowhere has the complacency running through the club been more apparent than in the transfer market, from which they are now banned.

The failure to sign a single central defender since 2009, when Pep Guardiola brought in Dmytro Chygrynskiy, has felt more and more ill-advised with every passing summer. In subsequent seasons the club failed to move for Javi Martinez and Thiago Silva, while saving up for Neymar.

Between times Alex Song was signed as someone who "could also play in the centre of defence" – news to everyone, Song included.

This year the failure to bring in a long-term replacement for Carles Puyol has hit them even harder, with Pique's fractured pelvis keeping him out of tonight's final.

Xavi like Puyol has not been replaced, with the in-house solution – 21-year-old Thiago Alcantara – inexplicably allowed to leave and join Bayern Munich.

The reaction to the meltdown of the last week – being knocked out of the Champions League and slipping back in the domestic title race – has been as surreal as some of the behaviour that has caused it.

The local sports media keeps pumping out the message that the squad will be renewed at great expense at the end of the season, displaying exactly the kind of "Fifa does not exist" attitude that got the club in trouble in the first place.

ATTENTION

And after the defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, attention focused on Leo Messi's post-match stats, which showed that he had run only twice as far as Barça's goalkeeper Pinto during the game – supporters reduced to blaming a defeat on the fact that Messi was not running about enough.

The Argentinian looked a little nonplussed in training yesterday as the team worked out with a rugby ball in their last session before travelling to Valencia, where the final is being played – another surreal touch to an at times bizarre season.

After the weekend defeat to Granada, passing statistics actually showed Barcelona had enjoyed 86pc of possession – a new high, beating the previous benchmark of 84pc set under Guardiola.

No one at the club has their head so far in the sand that they see that as a sign nothing is wrong.

And most believe, even if they win the cup tonight, it will change nothing.

It would be their third win over Madrid this season – but it is not the treble they had in mind at the start. (© Independent News Service)

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