Barcelona strolled to victory at Zaragoza last weekend with virtually a second-string line-up, disposing of the relegation strugglers with ease. Without Lionel Messi and a host of star names, it was left to Cristian Tello and Thiago Alcantara to score the goals in a routine 3-0 win and chalk up another three points on the way to Barca’s 22nd Primera title.
Pundits and fans worldwide will be quick to rejoice in another major triumph for the Catalans if, as seems increasingly likely, they were to win the Primera title by a distance. Yet much of their domination of the domestic competition has come from brushing aside the likes of Zaragoza, emphasising once again the competitive mediocrity of much of La Liga.
This is not to deny the undoubted greatness of the present Barca side, as their presence in the last four of the Champions League for a sixth successive season once again proves. However, the fragilities of La Blaugrana have at times been exposed against higher quality opponents and a two-legged semi-final against Bayern Munich will provide a stern test of their mettle. Much has been made of Barca’s reliance on key players and the coming close season could see significant movement both in and out of Camp Nou.
Barca are far from being a one-man team, but the greatness of Messi is highlighted no more brightly than when he is absent. Witness not only his magnificent haul of goals but also his game-changing emergence from the bench to inject his magic and transform his side’s laboured display against Paris Saint-Germain.
Questions have also increasingly been asked of Barca’s defensive credentials. Champions League defeats in Glasgow and Milan highlighted a lack of pace and mobility and even a naivety at set-pieces, while successive Clasico defeats saw Real Madrid expose a lack of both depth and a Plan B to the Catalans. Uncertainty surrounds Victor Valdes position at the club amid his contract situation and this summer could be the time for him to make way, while Carles Puyol’s run of injuries this term has highlighted he can surely not have much longer to run.
In midfield, the fitness and longevity of 33-year-old Xavi Hernandez has also been questioned more so this term, even if his metronomic passing accuracy remains intact. Young midfielder Thiago showed in his performance against Zaragoza, with Xavi on the bench, that he could already be an interim or longer-term replacement for the great playmaker.
The Barca hierarchy is already making plans, of course, and the club have been closely linked with summer moves for a replacement for Valdes, a reinforcement and eventual replacement for Puyol and added firepower up front, with the need to support Messi and the possibility of David Villa’s departure hastening a move for a new attacker.
Valencia goalkeeper Vicente Guaita is widely believed to be the Catalans’ first choice to replace Valdes, but his €30m price tag could be a major stumbling block. Meanwhile, Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Chelsea’s David Luiz and Dejan Lovren of Lyon have all been touted as possible candidates to take over from Puyol. Coach Tito Vilanova, who is said to have been working closely with sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta on the club’s transfer plans this week, is believed to be keen on bringing in an alternative to Xavi in midfield as well as two strikers, one of whom could be the highly rated Brazilian, Neymar.
Money, as ever, will be the decider. Even Barca are facing a financial squeeze and, as well as bringing in new blood, Vilanova is under pressure to reduce the size of his squad to help absorb the additional expenditure. The futures of several of the younger players are under discussion with Isaac Cuenca, currently playing for Ajax, seen as the only likely returnee among the group currently out on loan. That will not help Barca’s strength in depth and they will need to spend wisely in the summer.