The image of Lionel Messi falling on his face summed up Barcelona’s Champions League exit
The image of Lionel Messi falling flat on his face on to the Nou Camp turf on Wednesday night seemed to sum up Barcelona’s exit and their current state.
They’ve not been this down since before Luis Enrique turned up three years ago – and with the manager leaving this summer, they are at a crossroads once again.
What went wrong? Who takes the blame? And where do the solutions lie? Sportsmail looks at what’s next for Barcelona.
Barcelona are at a crossroads with manager Luis Enrique set to quit the club in the summer
Barcelona are no longer an all-conquering force and face an uncertain future
So, big question first: where did it all go wrong?
One word: signings. With the exception of centre back Samuel Umtiti, Barcelona have not got one right since they signed Luis Suarez back in 2014.
Spending £30m on Arda Turan when there were rumours he could no longer handle the pace at Atletico Madrid was daft. So too was spending £30m on Andre Gomes, a player who had been party to, and helpless to prevent, Valencia’s awful season last year.
Then to throw another £30m at Valencia, this time for the services of Paco Alcacer, a player no better, but three-times as expensive, as Munir, and trying to skimp on the replacement for Dani Alves by giving Sevilla around £15m for Aleix Vidal.
Add to that list Lucas Digne and Denis Suarez and that’s half a team’s worth of players who have not improved the side at all.
Should sporting director Robert Fernandez take the blame then, not Luis Enrique?
Not entirely. Luis Enrique requested Turan and insisted on a centre forward, hence the club’s move for Alcacer.
Spending big on Arda Turan when he could no longer handle life at Atletico Madrid was daft
Andre Gomes was party to Valencia’s awful season last year, but was still signed by Barca
Paco Alcacer is another to struggle adapt to life at the Nou Camp after leaving the Mestalla
Barcelona must beat Real Madrid in the Clasico at the weekend to maintain their title hopes
Now he only has seven games left, what will history will say about Enrique’s reign?
Well he could still win the league and cup double, although the league will be as good as impossible if they don’t beat Real Madrid on Sunday. He will be fondly remembered for the first season treble but there has been a move away from Barcelona’s classic style and they have started to look like ‘just another team’. They have also appeared to have forgotten how to get the best out of Messi.
So who replaces him?
It was only ever a three-horse race. Jorge Sampaoli fell away as soon as Sevilla’s season imploded. Carlos Unzue became the favourite after the adrenaline high of the PSG comeback, but it will now almost certainly be Ernesto Valverde, who has already told Athletic Bilbao he will leave at the end of the season.
He played for Barcelona for two years, from 1998 until 2000. A striker, he won the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup, before signing for Bilbao where he spent six years.
He has overachieved there, and free from the shackles of not being able to sign outside the region most Barcelona supporters believe he will deliver. He was an option when Tata Martino left in 2014.
Popular with supporters, he would also fit the needs of a team that needs to be organised more than coached, and he could even keep Unzue on as his No 2. The two were together at the club as players and it would give some continuity from the Luis Enrique era that did, in the beginning at least, achieve excellence.
Enrique could still end his Barcelona reign with a domestic double and go out on a high
His successor will most likely be Ernesto Valverde, who leaves Athletic Bilbao in the summer
Doesn’t sound earth-shatteringly exciting…
No but he’s one of theirs, having played, albeit briefly, at the club. He has overachieved at Athletic and he has the consolatory nature needed to work with Messi and company.
Who will they sign?
They want a right back, possibly a left back too, and a top midfielder. They have not completely given up on Hector Bellerin. They know from experience that Arsenal are a selling club and that they would rather sell to Spain than a Premier League rival.
The perfect choice for midfielder would be Marco Verratti but PSG don’t sell players these days and it looks a difficult deal to make happen. Philippe Coutinho would be far easier to do. He wants to come and link up with Neymar and former Liverpool team-mate Suarez, and Jurgen Klopp has already earmarked replacements if it happens.
Barcelona have not completely given up on signing right back Hector Bellerin from Arsenal
The perfect choice for midfielder would be Marco Verratti but PSG don’t sell players easily
Philippe Coutinho could sign from Liverpool and link up with former team mate Luis Suarez
The only problem with Coutinho is he is very much an attacking midfielder. He would replace the fading Iniesta, but would they not still need the box-to-box man that Rakitic was back in 2015 when they won the treble?
They also want left-back-cum-centre-back Theo Hernandez. The 19-year-old belongs to Atletico Madrid and has a £20m buy-out clause.
He is thought to favour a move to Barcelona but other clubs are interested and Barca’s recent record of winning the race to sign someone everyone wants is not great.
Gerard Deulofeu also looks set to return from Everton, although it may be that he comes in to then be loaned straight back to AC Milan.
Gerard Deulofeu also looks set to return from Everton after impressing on loan at AC Milan
Who else gets sold?
It’s time to say a fond farewell to Javier Mascherano, who has been immense but no longer works as a solution either at centre back or in midfield. It will also be au revoir to Jeremy Mathieu.
Both Mathieu and Mascherano were culpable in the first leg in Turin and Barca were all the better for them not starting in the second leg.
Sporting director Fernandez is also praying daily that a big Chinese team really do come in and pay a fortune for Turan. Others like Gomes and Alcacer can’t be got rid of. The club needs to make things work.
It’s time for Barcelona to say a fond farewell to Javier Mascherano as he gets older
Jeremy Mathieu will also leave after a torrid campaign for the French central defender
Are the problems only fixable with ins and outs in the transfer market?
Not at all. The youth system has stopped producing players for the first team. Pep Guardiola always warned them that the boom of a few years ago would not last for ever, but the B-team scrambling around in the third tier instead of the second division does not help. Neither does the lack of faith and patience shown in some players.
What’s the mood like? Does it really feel like the end of an era?
The era will only end when Messi fades and he’s still averaging a goal a game so that looks a long way off yet. The send-off the supporters gave the team on the final whistle on Wednesday night spoke volumes for the dignified exit from the competition.
Sunday’s meeting with Madrid will set the tone for the rest of the season. If they win then the title race will go to the wire. If they lose then it really will be a dirge until the last game of Luis Enrique’s time in charge – which is at least a cup final and the chance to sign off with a trophy.
As long as Messi fires Barcelona won’t be done, but this season could peter out badly for Barca