One unsettled club legend who is free to leave in the summer. One struggling sporting director now likely to be sacked. One under-pressure president being forced into early elections this summer and one £100 million winger who has only ever played 10 complete games since signing and is now out injured until the end of the season.
Barcelona is a club in crisis with Lionel Messi, Eric Abidal and Josep Maria Bartomeu at war. Here are the three key players in the latest saga that is threatening to rip Barcelona apart.
Despite having a contract until 2021 Messi can walk away from Barcelona in the summer for free.
Very few people around the team believe he will but he is unhappy with the way the club is being run and it now looks as though it may take the arrival of a new president in the summer and serious attempts to re-sign Neymar to keep him.
According to reports, the build-up of frustrations over the failure to sign Neymar last summer and the failure to sign a single forward in January to replace long-term injury casualty Luis Suarez, plus the bungled attempts to bring back Xavi, came to a head on Tuesday when he read an interview with sporting director Eric Abidal in which he felt the players were being blamed for the chaos.
This is not the first time Messi has spoken out publicly against those that run the club. In December 2013 director Javier Faus made comments about the frequency of Messi’s contract renewals. Messi responded: ‘Mr Faus is someone who knows nothing about football and who tries to run Barcelona as if it were a business. It is not.’
Faus was gone by 2015. President Josep Bartomeu has called a meeting with Abidal on Wednesday and he could go the same way.
The problems off the pitch are affecting Messi who has been a subdued figure during games at times this season. And leaks from around the Joan Gamper training ground suggest an uncomfortable distance has opened up between him and at least one of his team-mates.
Diario AS reported an altercation last Tuesday between two high-profile players and the famous Barcelona pre-game huddle has since disappeared prior to kick-off. The No 1 job for the directors at Barcelona is to keep Messi happy – they are not doing it.
Abidal is Barcelona’s fourth sporting director in five years. His role is complicated by his own lack of experience and by the lack of clarity over exactly what is his responsibility. In simple terms he is there to sign the players and hire the coaches.
Barcelona have not made a successful signing since 2014 when Andoni Zubizarreta brought Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Zubizarreta was sacked by the president in January 2015.
Abidal’s interviews with Sport and Mundo Deportivo this week, perhaps unintentionally, appeared to pin Ernesto Valverde’s sacking on the dressing room. If Messi’s response means either he or Abidal has to leave the club, then it’s no contest as to who it will be.
Abidal also claimed in this week’s interview that Xavi was never offered the coach’s job after Valverde was sacked. This felt like an attempt to cover up the fact that Barcelona were turned down by both Xavi and Ronald Koeman before they offered the job to Quique Setien but it has convinced no one.
It will be a shame if there is no mending of the Abidal-Messi relationship. He was a team-mate of Messi’s between 2007 and 2013, in a dressing room that won so much under Pep Guardiola.
Josep Maria Bartomeu
Bartomeu has always been a proponent of Barcelona playing games overseas. He was fully behind them playing the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia in January but since that trip nothing has been the same at the club.
The knee-jerk reaction to fire Valverde might have worked had he been successful in bringing in Xavi to replace him but after a very public effort to do so he failed. As much as he tried to suggest that the man he eventually hired, Setien, was always an option, the did not look the case when in his presentation Setien said that he was strolling with the cows in his village the day before and was now stunned to be in charge of Messi and company.
Bartomeu’s prints are on the failures to re-sign Neymar and hire Xavi. If the season ends trophyless he will have little choice to bring his tenure as president to an end one year ahead of time.
The short-term future
If Abidal is sacked on Wednesday his replacement’s first job will be to sign a forward. They are already without Luis Suarez for four months and Dembele’s injury leaves them with just Messi, Antoine Griezmann and 17-year-old Ansu Fati.
The problem is if they were unable to sign a player in January what chance now when the field is shrunk further? Special rules allow them to sign a player if they can prove that Demebele’s injury rules him out for the rest of the season.
But they can only sign a player who is either playing in Spain, or who is currently out of contract. And whoever they sign he will not be able to play in the Champions League.
The longer term
Elections in the summer now look inevitable. Current director Emili Rousaud is Bartomeu’s continuity candidate because he himself cannot stand again. But it looks impossible for someone backed by the current board to win.
Telecommunications businessman Victor Font is likely to run against Rousaud and with Xavi Hernandez on his side and likely to offer himself in some capacity – possibly as head coach – he will almost certainly win any battle between the two.
The first job on the list of the new president will be to secure Messi’s services beyond next summer. The return of Xavi might help but the signing of Neymar would really seal Messi staying. The current board are also trying to bring back Messi’s pal but it seems increasingly unlikely that it is a deal they will still be around to make.