Barcelona set for evolution not revolution after title win in Spain

 

In the days leading up to the confirmation of Barcelona La Liga's title triumph, which was clinched with Real Madrid's draw against Espanyol on Saturday, the Catalan club and their local media desperately tried to generate an atmosphere of jubilation.

"We need to be aware of how difficult it is to win a league title, and when we win it we should really celebrate," said coach Tito Vilanova after his team's 4-2 victory over Real Betis last weekend.

And anticipating plans for Monday's celebratory open-top bus tour, local newspaper Sport cheered: "This title deserves a parade!"

Such strenuous efforts to promote positivity were deemed necessary because, among many Barcelona fans, there's a distinct feeling of anti-climax about their team's reclamation of the top domestic honours.

It's partly a question of timing. Barca's magnificent start to the campaign, coupled with conflict-torn Real Madrid's wretched opening few months, ensured the destination of the league crown was effectively decided well before Christmas.

Understandably, many supporters have therefore found it difficult to get too excited about a trophy they knew they were going to win six months ago.

But there's more to it than that.

The relative apathy that has greeted the title triumph reflects the fact that Barca followers regard success in La Liga as only half-fulfilling their demands.

Mixed season for Barca?

  • Won back the league title from Real Madrid - their 22nd Spanish league title
  • Knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Real Madrid at semi-final stage, lost 3-1 at home and 4-2 on aggregate
  • Thrashed 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in Champions League semi-final

In addition to domestic supremacy, fans also expect their team to win - or at least come close to winning - the Champions League.

In recent seasons they have been more than satisfied by their team's European performances, even when they've not succeeded.

In 2010 and 2012, for instance, Barca dominated their semi-finals against Inter Milan and Chelsea and consoled themselves with the firm belief that, even in defeat, they were the better side.

Not this year, though. The brutally emphatic nature of Bayern Munich's 7-0 recent aggregate victory prompted a debate that will continue well into the summer months.

A small number of fans even called for Vilanova to be sacked. Although that view was held by just a negligible minority, it reflects the impression that Vilanova's credibility as Pep Guardiola's long-term successor is being questioned for the first time.

And it wasn't just the extremists who called for action. Gerard Pique's immediate reaction to the deflating second-leg loss was that the club should "make changes" during the summer, while vice president Josep Bartomeu stated his belief that "four or five" new signings are required.

Vilanova, though, has repeatedly made it clear that he holds a less drastic view. He believes Bayern's dominance was largely "circumstantial" rather than evidence that the Germans have suddenly become a stronger team.

There were injuries in defence - Carles Puyol and fellow central defender Javier Mascherano - while Lionel Messi was severely hindered by a hamstring injury. Sergio Busquets and Xavi have also been playing through injuries for weeks.

As Vilanova noted after the return match, the important thing for Barca isn't buying new players, but getting the existing players fit.

Where Puyol is concerned, though, that may not be a realistic hope. The captain is 35 and his injury record suggests his presence should now be viewed as a bonus, and the partnership between him and Pique can no longer be regarded as the first-choice pairing.

A new central defender, then, is a priority for the summer. Barca came close to signing Thiago Silva before he opted to join Paris St-Germain last year, and the Brazilian could come back into the frame, while Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels and Roma's impressive teenager Marquinhos are also being touted as potential recruits.

Barca set for Neymar move?

Brazilian Neymar

"Brazilian star Neymar is a red-hot tip to arrive in Catalonia, he has been a long-term target for Barca."

One enforced change could come in the goalkeeping department, where Victor Valdes has rejected a new contract and may therefore be sold this summer while he's still valuable, rather than being allowed to leave for nothing when his contract expires at the end of next season.

Manchester United's David De Gea, Liverpool's Pepe Reina and Valencia's Vicente Guiata are among the candidates to replace him.

David Villa is another potential departee. Despite speculation to the contrary from the British media, the Catalan club always insisted the striker would not be allowed to join Arsenal - or anyone else - during the January transfer window. They have, however, been notably less eager to state that Villa will be at Barcelona next season. 

In his place, Brazilian star Neymar is a red-hot tip to arrive in Catalonia.  The flamboyant winger has been a long-term target for Barca, who have openly admitted they are interested in securing his services from Santos.

The summer arrivals, then, are likely to include Neymar, a central defender and a goalkeeper. But that could well be it.

Vilanova has repeatedly insisted that no radical changes are required, and he is likely to get his way. Club president Sandro Rosell is a firm supporter of his manager, and will back his man in any internal debate about the composition of the squad - especially as influential sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta shares the manager's views.

Vilanova has also stated the club's much-admired youth system will continue to provide the basis of the squad.

We can expect to see Thiago Alcantara, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya and Cristian Tello receive more starts, perhaps joined by exciting winger Gerard Deulofeu and a pair of all-action midfielders in Sergi Roberto and Thiago's younger brother Rafinha.

A deserved title

  • The title in Barcelona's fourth in the last five years - and the first under Tito Vilanova
  • Barca collected 55 of the first 57 points available, winning 18 of their first 19 league games
  • Lionel Messi scored against every side in the top flight in successive matches after scoring in 19 straight games

Don't expect radical tactical changes either.

Although Vilanova will consider ways of embracing a wider variety of methods, such as a more regular use of the 3-4-3 formation employed in the 4-0 victory over AC Milan in March, Barca still have great faith that their old methods can continue to be successful.

While they're often criticised for lacking a Plan B, they are not yet ready to depart from their tried and trusted philosophy.

As far as Barcelona are concerned, it's not a case of finding Plan B, but executing Plan A more effectively.

Finally, another highly significant extenuating circumstance surrounding Barca's difficulties in the current campaign, although he would never use it as an excuse, has been Vilanova's personal situation.

The rookie coach spent three months in New York for a programme of medical treatment after undergoing cancer surgery shortly before Christmas, leaving his team in the hands of inexperienced assistant Jordi Roura.

Realistically, it would be unfair to judge Vilanova's performance or his long-term ability to lead Barcelona after just one season during which he spent three months in another continent, and he is relishing the opportunity for an uninterrupted campaign next time around.