Re­vamped Barcelona start new sea­son with spot­light on Messi

Arab Times - - SPORTS -

MADRID, Sept 24, (AP): Lionel Messi will be there when Barcelona start their sea­son on Sun­day, just as he has been for the last two decades.

His ev­ery move, how­ever, will be scru­ti­nized like never be­fore.

Af­ter all, never be­fore had Messi told the club that he wanted to leave, and never be­fore had Messi been forced to stay.

Will Messi still give his best? Will he still be mo­ti­vated? Will the trans­fer saga af­fect him?

Some of those ques­tions may start be­ing an­swered on Sun­day when Barcelona open their Span­ish league sea­son against Vil­lar­real at the Camp Nou. It will be the club’s league de­but af­ter the first two matches were post­poned be­cause of their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Cham­pi­ons League late last sea­son.

The team’s last of­fi­cial match was the em­bar­rass­ing 8-2 loss to Bay­ern Mu­nich in the Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nals in Au­gust, one of the worst de­feats in the club’s his­tory and in Messi’s ca­reer. The re­sult thrust Barcelona into one of their worst crises ever, and led Messi to make public his de­sire to leave.

The Ar­gentina great even­tu­ally back­tracked af­ter Barcelona de­nied his re­quest to leave for free. He said he didn’t want to get into a le­gal dis­pute with the “club of his life”. But Messi made it more than clear that he

would have rather left, and openly crit­i­cized club pres­i­dent Josep Bar­tomeu for not keep­ing his prom­ise to let him go.

Still, Messi said he would give his best de­spite hav­ing wanted to leave, and there were no signs of any let­down in the prepa­ra­tion matches in which he played ahead of what should be his fi­nal sea­son with the club.

“For a mo­ment I thought he wouldn’t stay with us,” Barcelona team­mate Sergi Roberto said. “He’s our cap­tain, the best player this club has ever had and the best player in the his­tory of soc­cer. I couldn’t imag­ine Barça with­out Leo. It’s nor­mal that he may have wanted a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence, but he has given it all for this club through­out the years. He

SOC­CER

has been mo­ti­vated since he came to the first team. He is very pro­fes­sional.”

Messi stayed but Barcelona will have a new coach as part of the pro­found changes an­nounced by the club fol­low­ing the loss to Bay­ern. Ron­ald Koe­man ar­rived to re­place Quique Setién, and it didn’t take long be­fore the Dutch coach said he wanted to revamp the squad. Barcelona will start the sea­son with­out some of their key play­ers from re­cent years, in­clud­ing Ivan Rakitic, who re­joined Sevilla, and Luis Suárez, who joined ri­vals Atlético Madrid.

Also new for Barcelona is the fact that they will be com­ing off a tro­phy-less sea­son for the first time since 2007-08. The team fin­ished five points be­hind Real Madrid in the league last sea­son de­spite hav­ing the lead when the com­pe­ti­tion was in­ter­rupted by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic with 11 matches re­main­ing.

De­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Real Madrid have a dif­fi­cult sec­ond match on Satur­day against Real Betis, who have won two in a row to start the sea­son un­der veteran Chilean coach Manuel Pel­le­grini, a for­mer Madrid coach.

Madrid strug­gled in at­tack in their open­ing 0-0 draw at Real So­ciedad last Sun­day, when Eden Haz­ard still wasn’t avail­able. It re­mains un­likely that Haz­ard will be fit to face Betis at the Ben­ito Vil­la­marín Sta­dium.

Atlético will make their Span­ish league de­but on Sun­day against Granada at the Wanda Metropoli­tano Sta­dium, but it’s un­clear if Suárez will be ready to play af­ter join­ing from Barcelona.

Diego Costa was set to be in the at­tack af­ter Ál­varo Mo­rata joined Ju­ven­tus to open space for Suárez.

Like Atlético and Barcelona, Sevilla also had their first two matches post­poned be­cause of Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion af­ter win­ning the Europa League in Au­gust. And their opener on Sun­day at pro­moted Cádiz will come only three days af­ter they play Bay­ern Mu­nich in the Su­per Cup.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (left), vies for the ball with Girona’s Gum­bau dur­ing the pre­sea­son friendly soc­cer match be­tween Barcelona and Girona at the Jo­han Cruyff Sta­dium in Barcelona, Spain on Sept 16. (AP)

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