Monday 1 May 2017

'Barca is not Barca anymore' - Axe hanging over Luis Enrique after Paris pummelling

(L-R) Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Samuel Umtiti of Barcelona dejected during the first leg match against Paris Saint-Germain. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
(L-R) Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Samuel Umtiti of Barcelona dejected during the first leg match against Paris Saint-Germain. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Ed Malyon

"Barca are not what they were" may appear to be the most obvious analysis possible after Luis Enrique's side slipped to an apparently defining 4-0 defeat in Paris.

"Barca are not what they were" may appear to be the most obvious analysis possible after Luis Enrique's side slipped to an apparently defining 4-0 defeat in Paris.

But that conclusion did not emerge on the back of an Angel Di Maria-inspired romp, finessed by contributions from Julian Draxler and Edinson Cavani.

Rather it came five days ago, as SPORT columnist Lluis Mascaró loudly considered Barcelona's failings this term.

"Barca are not what they were . . . footballistically speaking," he began. "Or at least, they don't seem it.

"Luis Enrique has gone about denaturalising their style of play over his three years to the point of converting them into what they are now: un equipo más."

'Just another team'.

It is such a far cry from Barcelona's eternal mantra, 'mes que un club', so proudly embedded into the steepling stands of the footballing cathedral that is the Nou Camp.

But it accurately conveys how the Blaugrana have gradually lost their aura during Luis Enrique's stewardship, resulting in a historic Valentine's Day pummelling.

What began with a treble in Luis Enrique's first season, garlanded by Super Cups, tapered to a league and cup double last year. This season there may be a Copa del Rey. The next campaign will likely see a new coach.

Coaching

As Paris Saint-Germain ripped them limb from limb at the Parc des Princes, Lionel Messi failed to get a single shot on target. Forget conceding four goals, if you have the greatest player to ever kick a football on your team and you fail to use him properly then it is a coaching failure.

There were underperformances from the players, particularly in midfield. But if anything that only serves to further underline that Barca "are not what they were."

The supposed triumph of the Luis Enrique era was that he transitioned this side from one that was focused on its magical midfield to one that leant more heavily on the best forward line ever assembled.

Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Andre Gomes were pitiful on a night that will live in modern Barcelona infamy, with the £45m Portugal midfielder highlighting just how hit and miss recruitment has been in recent seasons.

That is a matter for sporting director Robert Fernandez, as is the future of Luis Enrique. Or at least it is supposed to be.

After enduring a loveless Valentine's Day evening, the Barcelona head coach had to be restrained when an interview with Catalunya's TV3 got fiery, in-keeping with his unique style of press relations.

Enrique has frequently treated the reporters that cover his team on a regular basis with disdain and disrespect and, in the coming days, that will likely come back to bite him. Pressure mounts, but no moreso than it will be doing internally as the 46-year-old contemplates what happens next. Having always been so non-committal about his future with the club, it would surprise very few people if he walked away in the summer.

So while the coach's future should be a matter for Robert Fernandez, the feeling that Luis Enrique was always going to trigger the ejector seat before the club did still rings true with the question lingering over whether La Masia has lost its magic touch.

"Barca is not Barca anymore," Mascaró concluded last week, "and I doubt they ever will be again. Therefore we have no other remedy than to start getting used to it. No matter how much it hurts."

Few nights would have hurt like this. 90 minutes remains before the real fallout can begin.

The key questions

How have Barcelona managed to concede four goals in one game twice in one season?

Barring their 2015-16 season-opening 5-4 thriller against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup, Barca's defence was incredibly mean as they won the Spanish double with relative ease.

But a 4-3 reverse at Celta in October exposed their latent fragility - and the common denominator between that game and Paris was makeshift full-back Sergi Roberto, who played particularly poorly on Tuesday.

Luis Enrique has still not settled on a permanent backline, with natural midfielder Roberto often drafted, in while Aleix Vidal is more adept as a winger than at right-back.

What's wrong with 'MSN'?

Most clubs would be satisfied with a front three who can score 90 league goals between them over the course of a single season, but Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are underperforming.

At this stage of the campaign the strikeforce known as 'MSN' has 43 goals in LaLiga and only 14 more in Europe.

French newspaper L'Equipe considered the trio so bad in the Paris defeat that Messi and Suarez were given 2/10 in the player ratings, with Neymar considered a superior performer at 3/10.

Messi is scoring at a modest rate in the league and appears to be fatigued, but Luis Enrique refuses to rest him.

This weekend's meeting with lowly Leganes offers an opportunity to revise and revitalise these misfiring attacking outlets.

What is Barcelona's best midfield combination?

It was not the one employed by Luis Enrique on Tuesday night, that much is certain. The boss drafted in the out-of-favour Ivan Rakitic for the recent 6-0 hammering of Alaves but despite a goal in an impressive performance, the wily Croatian was dropped.

Andre Gomes, ineffective at Alaves, retained his place and was run ragged, while the ageing Andres Iniesta replaced Rakitic and did not last anywhere near the 90 minutes at the Parc des Princes.

Sergio Busquets was the only midfielder who stood up to the dominance of Adrien Rabiot, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, an impossible tide to hold back for one man - which left the creaking defence ruthlessly exposed.

Have Barca any hope of a comeback?

The Catalan giants have achieved similar feats in the past, overturning AC Milan's surprise two-goal first-leg lead in March 2013 to triumph 4-2 on aggregate - and without the benefit of an away goal.

Messi had one of his best nights in a Barca shirt on that occasion and the key to any history-making revival - no team has progressed after losing a first leg 4-0 since 1971 - must be the Argentinian.

When Messi is in full flow he does not only plunder goals galore but shoots confidence through his team-mates, typically eliciting sublime displays from his partner-in-crime Suarez on his best nights.

Without MSN at their lethal best, which was a distant memory in Paris, Barca will fail.

Irish Independent

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