Missing out on the Spanish title is perhaps Barça’s smallest problem – decline is setting in and most key players are above 30. This will take a long time to sort out

Leo Messi was the first off the pitch, heading down the tunnel alone as Barcelona’s anthem began echoing around a stadium as vacant as the look in the team’s eyes. It was almost midnight on the last day of the financial year and it was over.

Looking down at the scene were the club’s directors who had made it to July, surviving another season, but only just. Any lingering hope of winning La Liga had gone. Ten days before Gerard Piqué said it would be “very difficult”. Now, held 2-2 by Atlético Madrid, a third draw in four, it was virtually impossible.

At the side of the pitch Sergio Busquets said something about mathematical possibility, which is what players say when they have nothing else. Barcelona had decided to sack manager Ernesto Valverde when they were top and without a replacement ready; six months on, they are second, a point behind Real Madrid having played a game more. There are five left and no one is looking forward to those much. That is not the worst of it, either. Defeat, not definitive yet, is one thing; decline is another. Capitulation had been coming for a long time; they were flawed when they were first and well before that.

When the final whistle went Quique Setién turned to the bench, picked up some papers and stood there for a moment. A disciple of Johan Cruyff , this is not how he imagined managing Barcelona. And yet nor can he have been entirely surprised, not least because Cruyff fought battles too and Setién knew he had not been Barça’s first choice. He has problems of his own but most of his team’s precede him. Not least because they are not just the team’s problems; they are the club’s.

Against Atlético, Antoine Griezmann, Barcelona’s third most expensive player in their history, had been on the pitch four minutes. Ousmane Dembélé, their second most expensive, was not there: injured again, his career in Catalonia slipping from his control or anyone else’s. And as for their most expensive signing, Philippe Coutinho is in Munich on loan because they couldn’t sell him. He will be back soon and they will try to get rid of him again, another plan in pieces.

Coutinho was supposed to replace Iniesta, just as Arthur Melo was supposed to replace Xavi. But on Monday Arthur joined Juventus, travelling to Turin still in his Barça tracksuit. They were in a hurry, after all. Juventus paid €72m plus €10m in add-ons Barcelona said but this was effectively a swap deal with Miralem Pjanic, an act of accountancy more creative than the players and driven by finance not football. Driven, above all, by the board’s determination to escape liability for the budgetary shortfall, their short-term survival secured at the cost of deepening and postponing problems until another day.

They are not the only successors lost, the only plans gone awry. Neymar, the man who would play alongside and eventually replace Messi, should be taking the lead now. But he became impatient and Barcelona were powerless to prevent him leaving in 2018. They have become locked in a spiral of loss and nostalgia ever since, desperate to make amends to the point where they tried to bring him back again but did not have the money.     Continue reading

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