Valverde (centre) took over from Luis Enrique at the Nou Camp in 2017
Reigning champions, top of the league, Champions League group winners, captained by the Ballon d’Or winner… but still in crisis?
That might not sound like a very normal situation, but Barcelona are not a normal club.
At the Nou Camp, style is demanded as much as substance and a series of unconvincing displays has left manager Ernesto Valverde fighting for his job, despite steering his team to the top of La Liga.
The delicate situation was further complicated on Sunday with the shock news that striker Luis Suarez has been ruled out for four months, potentially forcing a desperate plunge into the transfer market.
Xavi wooed, Valverde to quit?
Although they won La Liga by a mile, last season ended horribly for Barca with the infamous Champions League exit at Liverpool and a Copa del Rey final loss against Valencia.
Valverde somehow clung on to his job but it was clear he had little remaining credit, and the new campaign has seen his team deliver convincing collective displays only rarely, despite the individual talent of Suarez and Lionel Messi securing sufficient wins to top the table alongside Real Madrid.
Barca’s away form has been particularly poor, with losses at Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante plus draws at Osasuna, Real Sociedad and Espanyol.
The biggest concern is that all those games followed a similar pattern, with Valverde unable to fix the problems that regularly leave his team looking disjointed in possession and vulnerable at the back, edging ever further from the club’s trademark incisive passing game.
After a poor performance in the pre-Christmas Clasico – a disappointing goalless home draw which Real largely dominated – Barca’s latest setback came on Thursday in the reformatted Super Cup semi-final against Atletico Madrid, when they conceded two late goals to fall to a 3-2 defeat.
In the wake of that loss, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu appears to have decided enough is enough.
Xavi, who has just started his managerial career with Al-Sadd after spending the previous four years playing for the Qatari club, has confirmed media reports that he spoke to Barca’s sporting director Eric Abidal and chief executive Oscar Grau over the weekend.
On Saturday, Valverde’s dismissal and Xavi’s immediate appointment were widely considered in the Spanish media to be a formality.
But a twist came on Sunday as Xavi reportedly back-tracked, deciding to reject the club’s offer and stay with Al-Sadd – for now, at least.
Another complication – and it’s inevitable that behind-the-scenes scheming is involved at such a deeply political club – is that Xavi has been a long-time ally of businessman Victor Font, who is planning to run against the current board in next year’s presidential elections.
Rather than rejecting Barca, it’s perhaps more specifically accurate to say that Xavi has rejected Bartomeu, preferring to bide his time until Font, if his presidential bid succeeds, steps into office. And he’s not the only one: another iconic former skipper, Carles Puyol, turned down the sporting director role in September after also lending his support to Font in the past.
Valverde, understandably enough, is thought to be considering quitting anyway after being angered by his club’s semi-public pursuit of Xavi, and if he did stay it’s hard to see how he can retain his authority after his treatment in the past few days.
So Valverde might still be going, but if Xavi isn’t coming who could replace him? Against such a turbulent backdrop and in the knowledge of being second-choice, perhaps it’s not surprising that Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman has also reportedly turned down the job. And the temptation for any other potential target has been further diminished by a serious injury blow.
Suarez will be out for four months following a knee operation
Suarez absence sparks transfer hunt
Suarez has been in magnificent form, scoring or assisting each of his team’s past 10 league goals and continuing to enjoy a telepathic connection with Messi.
But the Uruguayan could now miss the rest of the season after having a knee operation on Sunday, with the diagnosis of a four-month absence far worse than the initial expectation that he would be out for just one.
Replacing Suarez at centre forward could be achieved by repositioning Antoine Griezmann, who has been playing in a left-wing berth since his big-money summer move from Atletico Madrid but would surely be delighted to receive the chance to play in a more central role.
That would obviously leave a gap on the left wing, which could be filled by an unconvincing combination of currently (and often) injured Ousmane Dembele, home-grown Carles Perez (who is more comfortable on the right) and hugely inexperienced teen starlet Ansu Fati.
But Barca could also feel compelled to bring forward their acquisition of a new centre forward to replace Suarez, which it was expected would take place at the end of the season, with Inter Milan’s all-action Argentine Lautaro Martinez a leading candidate.
Money, though, is a big problem. Barca’s budget is already stretched and they would almost certainly have to sell several players to meet Martinez’s 111 million euro release clause at Inter.
That could start with Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal, who is reportedly suing Barca in a dispute over unpaid bonuses and has already attracted Inter’s interest.
Cheaper options could be former Barca trainee Dani Olmo, who has shone for Dinamo Zagreb this season, and Osasuna striker Chimy Avila, whose hard-running style and penchant for spectacular goals has won admirers across Spain.
But considering the soap opera nature of life at ‘Camp Barca’, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see a renewed bid for a superstar who was unsuccessfully courted last summer.
Get ready for the ‘Neymar back to Barca’ headlines once again.
The question, though, is this: who would be managing him?