Barcelona play Real Madrid at the Bernabéu stadium in Madrid tonight. Much has changed since they last met in La Liga back in October when Barça outplayed their rivals to win 2-1.
Going into that game, the focus had been on Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive player, who started – by club presidential decree it seemed – despite being unfit. He was played out of position as a centre forward, and endured a lamentable afternoon before being substituted.
Meanwhile, Barça’s marquee signing from the summer, Neymar – who was enlisted to try to revive the club after its dispiriting 7-0 capitulation to Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League semi-finals – marked his derby debut with a goal. And while the club’s talisman Lionel Messi sat out the next couple of months nursing a hamstring injury, the Brazilian grew in stature, notably with an impressive performance in the Champions League at Celtic Park.
He has, however, scored only one goal in 2014, during which time Barça have ceded ten points in the league race to Real Madrid. Last week his manager, Gerardo “Tata” Martino, was pressed about his dip in form. Was it to do with an ankle injury suffered while playing against Atlético Madrid in January or “the problems with his transfer”? Martino admitted it was more likely related to “non-sporting issues”.
In Spain, people refer to it as “the Neymar case”. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of saga that brings down governments. It has engulfed FC Barcelona since it blew up in January, following the resignation of club president Sandro Rosell because of a “simulated contract”.
Barcelona is run as a members’ club. It elects its presidents. Last December, a club member, Jordi Cases, who works as a pharmacist in a Catalan town about 20 minutes from Barcelona, brought a case against the club for misappropriation of funds regarding Neymar’s signature.
In mid January, Rosell appeared in court, insisting that Neymar cost ¤57.1 million. Two days later he resigned. The following day, the club admitted that Neymar cost ¤86.2m, and followed up by paying out ¤13.5m as a pre-emptive strike against tax fraud.
In an interesting sideshow, Barça fans blamed Real Madrid for some diabolical interference. When Neymar signed for Barça, it was seen as “a stain on Florentino’s suit”, as Real Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez, who put in a counter bid, was unable to persuade Neymar to join his club.
Xavier Bosch, a Catalan journalist, claimed on radio that Pérez phoned former Spanish prime minister, and Real Madrid club member, Jose Maria Aznar, to ensure that Cases’ case got a hearing. “That’s what an important judicial figure in Barcelona is saying,” he said. He subsequently apologised for his statement, following threat of a legal action by Pérez.
Meanwhile, Rosell is being investigated for his “negotiating engineering”. Neymar’s father has also come under fire. Questions are being asked about the ¤4m which has been allotted to him for a marketing role he is supposed to carry out for Barça. The accusations have brought considerable distress to the 22-year-old Neymar, who posted a despairing message last month on Instagram: “I can’t stand all this nonsense about my transfer.”
His club manager, Martino, is also straining from the pressure. He was brought in during the summer as a quick fix when it emerged that Tito Villanova, who led Barça to a 100-point league-winning campaign, was resigning because of a reccurrence of cancer.
Martino has been vilified by Barcelona’s sports-based press, which includes two daily newspapers, Sport and Mundo Deportivo. He has been criticised for tinkering with the tiki-taka tactics book – for mixing up his team’s keep-ball play with an emphasis on counter-attacking and long, diagonal balls. Earlier in the season, Barça ceded more than 50 per cent of the ball to Rayo Vallecano in a league game, the first time they had failed to dominate possession in a match since 2008.
He has been accused of confusing his players with ad hoc switches in strategy and personnel, and has failed to figure out the great conundrum of Europe’s superclub managers – how to rotate star players when they all want to play.
Much of the witch-hunt is being fed by whispers from his dressing room. A few weeks ago, television cameras honed in on a surly-looking Xavi Hernández towards the end of a 3-1 defeat by Real Sociedad in the league. The pass master stood on the sideline in an orange bib, as an unused substitute, his face etched in disgust.
It has been reported in the Spanish press that Martino will leave the club, likely taking up the chance to take over as Argentina’s national team coach after the World Cup. His two-year contract can be terminated before 31 May. The Barcelona board’s silence on the rumours of his departure has been deafening. There has been no declaration of allegiance.
A few days ago, Carles Puyol, the club’s captain, announced he will leave the club at the end of the season. His loss will be immense – for his galvanising presence, and because the club sorely lack a commanding central defender. The sloppy goal Barça conceded to Manchester City at the Nou Camp in the Champions League earlier in the month was typical of their defensive vulnerability. The refusal of the club’s goalkeeper Victor Valdes to sign a new contract (he will also leave in the summer) further compounds their defensive problems.
Martino’s team travel to Madrid with their hopes pinned on Messi, who last weekend became Barça’s all-time top scorer with 371 goals. His nemesis, Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, is in imperious mood, too, having bagged 41 goals in 37 games this season, and, significantly, he is part of a side that hasn’t lost in 31 games. Another likely win against Barça will put them seven points clear of the Catalans, and well on the way to a 33rd league title.
Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry. It is published by Bloomsbury.