Sunday 22 April 2018

Transfer ban could prove costly as leaky defence exposes Barca's frailties

Barcelona can't afford big signings like Luis Suarez this year after a transfer ban was imposed by FIFA
Barcelona can't afford big signings like Luis Suarez this year after a transfer ban was imposed by FIFA

Ian Hawkey

Summers at Barcelona need some theatre. Usually, the stagehands have by mid-August readied Camp Nou, on some scorching afternoon, to make a presentation that at once reminds the club of the strength of its own fan-base and sends a message to Madrid about Barca's long lines of credit.

Recent pre-seasons have had tens of thousands flocking to the unveilings of Neymar, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Twelve months back, there was the big spend on Luis Suarez. This year, the new European champions and treble-holders cannot do that sort of thing.

Barca's transfer ban, imposed by FIFA for the duration of 2015 after the governing body found the club had infringed regulations on the recruitment of players under the age of 18, has made the summer a little flat.

There was a presidential election last month but, because of the ban, the manifestos were unusually light on bold promises that superstar X or Y would be dazzling voters if they cast their ballot this way or that.

Barca will have fresh faces in the team before the end of a Liga campaign that starts next weekend, but the two senior men identified as most important to the improvement of the squad - Turkish attacking midfielder Arda Turan and full-back or winger Aleix Vidal - must wait until January to fully participate.

Effectively, Arda, who has left Atletico Madrid, and Vidal, who won the Europa League last May with Sevilla, agreed to join Barca knowing that, because of the FIFA restriction, they would give up six months of their careers, waiting and watching.

At least they haven't been watching anything dull. If Vidal felt torn as a touchline observer at the UEFA Super Cup last Tuesday, between his old employer and his new one, he would have been frazzled by the time the contest went into extra-time, and a Barcelona defence he will be asked to serve had conceded four times, let a three-goal slip away, and won 5-4 thanks only to the late intervention of Pedro, who will be allowed to leave Barca in the next fortnight partly because Arda is coming in.

And if Vidal and Arda felt at all reassured to hear their captain, Andres Iniesta, pointing out "it's not normal, we're not used to this," about the leaky defence, there will be a few thousand sitting around that patient pair for tonight's second leg of the domestic Super Cup against Athletic Bilbao who are not.

Athletic lead 4-0 at the halfway stage of Spain's equivalent of the Community Shield after the Basque team capitalised on a series of defensive errors to humiliate the champions on Friday night.

Barcelona 2015-16: Two official matches, eight goals conceded. In the five preceding pre-season friendlies, eight more went in against them.

"Teams are built on defensive strength and we are letting a lot of goals in," said a puzzled Iniesta after the Bilbao blitz. "That becomes more and more demoralising."

Most ambitious, heavyweight clubs who shipped goals in the quantity Barcelona have over the last week, would likely be hunting around for a solid centre-back and doing a deal rapidly.

Barcelona cannot, and the imperfections about what cover they do have across the defence suddenly seem pronounced.

There's the enigma that is Thomas Vermaelen, signed a year ago from Arsenal, injured for all but a few playing minutes of the treble campaign and for that rather an unknown quantity to Barca supporters and his team-mates.

Then there's the uneasy feeling that the back four is too often staffed by footballers who are versatile, but might just offer greater reassurance if they were true specialists. Four years into his reconfiguration at Barca into a central defender, Javier Mascherano is still a midfielder for Argentina, and sometimes for his club.

Yet, for all that, Luis Enrique insists they have a chance of overturning the deficit tonight.

Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao,

Live, Sky Sports 4, 9.0

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