Barcelona lead LaLiga, but are in turmoil off the pitch. Here’s why

Football has a short memory. Barcelona’s three successive Clasico wins were quickly forgotten on Wednesday as they were blown away by Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg. A second half hat trick from Karim Benzema and a Vinicius Jr. goal helped Madrid record a memorable 4-0 win at Spotify Camp Nou as they set up a final against Osasuna.

Barca coach Xavi Hernandez put on a brave face after the game. There was no anger, as was the case after last season’s Champions League elimination against Bayern Munich, but recognition that his side had been beaten by the reigning European champions and a nod to his prematch comments that Madrid, due to their success on the continent, were the favourites despite Barca’s 1-0 first-leg lead.

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Xavi also insisted that being knocked out by Madrid will not stain Barca’s season. They have already won the Spanish Supercopa this year, beating Madrid in the final, and, following last month’s Clasico win in LaLiga, are 12 points clear at the top of the league with 11 games to go. A first league title since 2019 is within sight and Xavi’s record (P79, W50, D14, L15) is impressive, but off the pitch Barca are in turmoil.

Prosecutors in Spain have filed corruption charges against the club for allegedly buying favour from referees — which UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said this week is one of the most serious issues he can remember in football. The financial struggles (€1.3 billion of debt) that have surrounded them for years are continuing with LaLiga forcing them to unregister star midfielder Gavi’s new contract in late March because of strict financial fair play rules. In total, the club need to save €150 million to adhere to the salary cap before Gavi can sign (he’s a free agent this summer) or bring in new players. The daily public fights with LaLiga president Javier Tebas, the delayed redevelopment of Camp Nou and the possibility of Lionel Messi’s return are all distractions that they could do without. So what is going on at the club right now?

It sometimes feels as if Barca only operate in extremes. They finished 13 points behind Real Madrid last season and won just one Copa del Rey in the previous three campaigns, so being 12 points clear with the Supercopa already in the bag this season represents a massive upturn in the team’s fortunes. Yet Wednesday’s loss, coupled with early exits from the Champions League (in the group stage behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan) and Europa League (to Manchester United in the playoff knockout round), does raise questions about their standing among the best teams in Europe.

Barca’s consistency in LaLiga has been impressive. They have lost just twice in 27 games and conceded only nine goals — the only goals leaked at Camp Nou have been a penalty and an own goal. It’s clean sheets that have provided the foundations for their lead at the top of the table and they have racked up nine 1-0 wins thanks to a new-look back five of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and defenders Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde. There have been goals and exciting attacking displays — striker Robert Lewandowski is still the league’s top scorer with 17 — but there has also been disappointment at the output from forwards Raphinha, Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres at times, while winger Ousmane Dembele has been injured for over two months.

Three Clasico wins in a row in 2023 had sparked belief that, in addition to beating the teams they should beat in the league, they could also compete with Europe’s best again. However, Wednesday’s hammering will leave doubts ahead of next season. Barca have conceded 20 goals in 10 games across Europe and the Copa del Rey semifinal with Madrid (and nine in five meetings against Madrid). It’s a remarkable contrast to LaLiga, albeit conditioned by injuries to important players at key moments.

A LaLiga title should be enough to justify last summer’s €150m-plus transfer spending on Lewandowski, Raphinha and Kounde (Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie arrived for free) — which only came thanks to the triggering of a fourth financial lever and sale of more club assets — but the overriding feeling is that there is still a way to go before Barca can consider themselves back among Europe’s elite.

The sense of lurching from euphoria to crisis on the back of one result is not helped by the constant soap opera off the pitch. While the headlines should be about Barcelona steamrolling their way to the title, they are instead about paying the former vice president of the referees’ committee, or being forced to unregister midfielder Gavi’s new contract due to their salary cap. These things have not yet had a knock-on effect on the pitch — and Xavi says they’re not even spoken about inside the dressing room — but they could soon.

Prosecutors in Spain have filed corruption charges against Barca and two of their former presidents for allegedly buying favour from referees. Barca admit paying ex-referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira’s company over €7m between 2001 and 2018, but say it was for “technical reports” into refereeing and that they never bought influence. LaLiga president Tebas says Spanish football is facing its biggest reputational crisis ever, while UEFA has launched an investigation into the issue and, unlike LaLiga (who missed the Spanish legal window two years ago), are not barred from dishing out a possible sporting sanction.

Tebas, meanwhile, continues to battle with Barca on several other issues: first, the Gavi contract situation, and the two are also at odds over the European Super League, which Barca support along with Madrid and Juventus.

“Alone against everyone,” read a banner held up by fans before Wednesday’s Clasico as they sung anti-Tebas chants.

Elsewhere, Barca’s money problems and the financial uncertainty around the globe have delayed funding for the revamp of Camp Nou. The club are pressing ahead with plans to redevelop their old stadium this year and plan to move to the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic next season (a move which will cost them upwards of €90m annually) as work is carried out, but they are yet to finalise funding for the €1.5 billion project. A loose deadline had been set of March 31 for the financing, but it passed without being met.

Barcelona will use LaLiga success as a platform to continue to build. They will seek continuity in the figure of club legend Xavi as coach — president Joan Laporta has already revealed plans to renew his contract, which expires in 2024 — but look to freshen things up on the playing side. How possible that will be is up for discussion.

Barca were in a similar position last summer and still managed to spend over €150m on new signings thanks to the sale of future earnings on television rights and a stake in their in-house production company. Real Betis were reported to be considering something similar and LaLiga’s response was to bring in eight new rules to limit how much of an effect asset sales have on salary margins moving forward.

Regardless of that, Barca, through sporting directors Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff, continue to target new signings. They are primarily looking at free agents. ESPN has already revealed there is a verbal agreement in place to sign Athletic Club defender Inigo Martinez and are in negotiations to bring in Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan when his contract expires. Both players, aged 31 and 32 respectively, would add depth and experience, while Barca also have an option to sign Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco permanently for €15m.

There is also interest in re-signing Messi from Paris Saint-Germain when his deal expires this summer, sources have told ESPN, although as yet there is no offer. Fans chanted his name in the 10th minute of Wednesday’s game just a week after Barca vice president Rafa Yuste confirmed the club were in contact with the player’s camp.

However, everything hinges on LaLiga’s financial fair play rules. As things stand, Barca cannot yet register the new contracts signed by Gavi, Ronald Araujo and Marcos Alonso, let alone inscribe new signings. One report has even claimed Barca have offered Martinez and Gundogan a clause which allows them to go out on loan, earning the same salary agreed with them, if they are not registered.

Therefore, before there are ins, there must be outs. Captain Sergio Busquets is one big earner out of contract this summer, but the club are keen for the 34-year-old midfielder to stick around, albeit on a reduced salary. Veteran left-back Jordi Alba, an unused substitute against Madrid, has a deal until 2024 but is now firmly behind teenager Balde in Xavi’s plans. In terms of transfers, Barca may be forced to make some difficult decisions. In an ideal world, loan players Clement Lenglet, Samuel Umtiti and Abde Ezzalzouli would leave permanently for decent fees, in addition to some of the fringe first-team players, to raise cash. In reality, they may have to be open to offers for other players.

In attack, they are stacked on the right wing, with Dembele, Raphinha and Torres all preferring that position. On the left, Ansu has struggled to show his pre-injury potential. His father, Bori, has said he should leave for regular football, but are Barca ready to give up on the player who took Messi’s No. 10 shirt and was heralded as a generational talent for club and country? He is still only 20, which is where Barca can be positive. Pedri (20), Gavi (18), Balde (19), Kounde (24), Araujo (24), De Jong (25), Dembele (25) and Christensen (26) are young and form the spine of a talented team.

Recruitment around that base will have to be smart, because a repeat of this season and failings on the big stage may not be deemed a success next year. It all just depends on what happens off the pitch and their financial stability once the transfer window reopens.

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