Messi, Messi, and more Messi, ahead of La Liga

Lionel Messi has since said he is not leaving but the interview where he declared that also had a scathing indictment of Bartomeu who could be facing a no-confidence vote before Barcelona kick-off in the 90th season of La Liga whose start was deferred by a day to Saturday.
FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi during training.(REUTERS)
FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi during training.(REUTERS)
Updated on Sep 11, 2020 12:03 AM IST
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Kolkata/New Delhi | ByDhiman Sarkar and Bhargab Sarmah

“I appreciate that he has accepted this challenge as these are not easy moments,” said Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu at Ronald Koeman’s unveiling as the new coach on August 19. Taking charge of an ageing team that had just leaked eight goals, easy moments they certainly weren’t for the Barcelona and Holland great but the club’s biggest crisis was still six days away.

Lionel Messi has since said he is not leaving but the interview where he declared that also had a scathing indictment of Bartomeu who could be facing a no-confidence vote before Barcelona kick-off in the 90th season of La Liga whose start was deferred by a day to Saturday.

That happened because the Spanish federation opposes games on Fridays and Mondays, its stand based on players’ association feedback. The league’s argument that games be held on those days because of Covid-19 was shot down by a judge on Wednesday. Originally scheduled to begin with Granada hosting Athletic Bilbao, La Liga will now start with Eibar-Celta Vigo.

Real Betis, who got coach Manuel Pellegrini back in La Liga after 2013, play on the opening weekend. At Betis, Pellegrini, who won the Premiership with Manchester City, will reunite with goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who joined this season.

Champions Real Madrid begin on September 20 with Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Europa League winners Sevilla, second, third and fourth last season, opening a week later.

“My love for Barca will never change,” Messi has said, but his need to articulate it is proof of cracks in a nearly 20-year relationship that could get him to listen to offers from January.

That could mean greater scrutiny of Messi and Barcelona in a season that will begin behind closed doors. Will Messi still be the corner-stone of the rebuilding project after Koeman said, “I only want players who want to be here”? Will Koeman be as successful in removing older players like he was with Holland, Valencia and PSV? Will he able to get the most out of young players like he did with Ever Banega, Juan Mata, Virgil van Dijk, Romelu Lukaku and Wesley Sneijder? Can he accommodate Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele? Known to be pragmatic, can Koeman, whose last trophy came in 2008, get Barcelona to consistently win again?

Champions Real Madrid look more settled but they too were a shadow of the side that won three successive Champions League titles in Zinedine Zidane’s first stint. Only two players managed to score in double figures last season: Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos, both in their 30s and the latter a centre-back. Midfielder Luka Modric turned 35 this week.

But Real improved defensively during Zindane’s second stint, conceding a league-least 25 goals in 2019-20. The brilliant Eden Hazard will be expected to contribute this time having missed most of last season due to injury. More will also be expected of Rodrygo, Eder Militao, and Ferland Mendy, already preferred as left back ahead of Marcelo.

Gareth Bale still has no takers but having sold James Rodriguez to Everton, Real can see if Martin Odegaard’s second stint is more successful than his first.

Atletico Madrid’s situation is similar to Real. Joao Felix didn’t quite light up La Liga but did show flashes of brilliance. “I hope he has a more stable season,” said Fernando Morientes, the former Real Madrid and Spain striker. Last season, Atletico scored just 51 league goals. Like Real, they don’t need to make many signings because they made wholesale changes last year. Their defence continues to be their strongest point: just 27 league goals conceded in 2019-20. Also revamping the squad last term were Sevilla where former Spain and Real coach Julen Lopetegui had a second coming. “When I see someone like him, I fall in love,” said team director Monchi who, along with Lopetegui, signed 17 players in 2019-20, releasing 28.

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