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Early Champions League exit highlights problems at Barcelona

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For the first time since Frank Rijkaard walked the sidelines at Camp Nou, Barcelona is approaching a crossroads, with today’s loss to Atlético Madrid underscoring the club’s evermore precarious future. But whereas before the club could pull somebody like Pep Guardiola from the ranks and right its course, the next chapter in Barcelona’s history looks less certain. Both on the field and off, an era of dominance may be coming to an end, giving today’s early exit from Champions League a bigger, more concerning context.

For most clubs, a quarterfinal departure wouldn’t be considered early, but when a club’s made six straight semifinals, it develops expectations. Particularly considering the only thing that stood between Barcelona and the final four was an opponent from Spain that’s not Real Madrid, Champions League becomes an even more telling test. While Atlético had proved its quality in four previous appearances with Barcelona, the Blaugrana had also showed its inability to conquer that new challenge. Now, that challenge has seen the Catalans out of Europe.

The problems extend back to league play, too. After running away with the title last year, Barcelona’s been pulled into a three-team race for first. The club’s early exit from Champions League may actually help in that regard, leaving it the only Liga contender not balancing European concerns. While Atlético and El Real extend their squads in a quest for European glory, Barcelona can focus on retaining La Liga.

Still, if previous years’ success is the benchmark, this season remains a cause for concern. The regression many thought would arrive sooner has started to surface in 2014. Be it by age (Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol), increased injury concerns (Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué), or departures (Víctor Valdés), one of the greatest teams in club soccer history is finally coming back to the pack.

That plight’s only exacerbated by problems off the field. At a time when Barcelona desperately needs to inject new talent, it may not be able to do so. Recently hit with a transfer ban for illegally signing underage players, Barcelona will be out of the next two transfer markets. Provided an appeal doesn’t diminish that sentence, Barça won’t be able to replace the departing Valdés. It won’t be able to bring in some desperately needed central defenders, and if it’s unable to reload, the midfield all of a sudden looks thin. With the core of the team set to play at this summer’s World Cup, a set of legs run ragged by the international schedule (and, Spain’s consistently runs in major tournaments) won’t get reinforcements.

source: Reuters
Sandro Rosell, left, resigned as Barcelona president in January. He was replaced by Josep Maria Bartomeu, right. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters.)

You can blame the Sandro Rosell regime for that, just as you can blame the departed president for the Neymar fiasco and the increasingly murky relationship between Qatar and a team that used to ar UNICEF across its chests. While fans all over the world romanticize the member-owned model, places like Argentine club scene and Catalonia (among others) get to deal with its repercussions.

After being chosen to replace Joan Laporta in 2010, Rosell moved the team toward the precarious, amoral place it occupies now. While the altruism of Barcelona used to strike an annoying cord, that elitist high-groins is still favorable to a tenure that’s left Barcelona no different from Europe’s other obscenely large clubs.

In that sense, what’s happening at Barcelona isn’t about today’s loss, though the departure from Champions League does gives us a chance to take stock. Just as Manchester United’s loss to Bayern leaves us asking what’s next for the Red Devils, Barcelona’s also reflects the club’s current woes. Not even claiming Liga and Copa del Rey titles will completely assuage the feeling that the season has been a step back.

In two months, Gerardo Martino may be gone, and while Barcelona will have a number of quality coaches pining for the job, others will see a two-window ban, aging core, and squad with holes as a reason to stay away. Be it Martino or somebody else, whomever’s in charge come July will have to deal with the miles another World Cup has put on Hernández, Iniesta, Dani Alves and Messi. And they’ll have to do so without being able to reinforce the core.

One loss in Madrid didn’t cause any of these problems. It only highlights the extent of them, and in that light the crossroads may not be a good one. It implies the club has options, yet locked into what it has, Barcelona may need to see this out. It may be helpless to prevent an end of an era.

Norwich City striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel signs with former club Vitesse Arnham

NORWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 17:Ricky van Wolfswinkel of Norwich City celebrates after scoring their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Everton at Carrow Road on August 17, 2013 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, Norwich City’s record transfer at the time of his purchase from Sporting CP in 2013, is moving on after a largely unsuccessful four-year stint with the Canaries.

The 27-year-old has returned to his home country, moving to Vitesse Arnham – the club he went professional with as a 19-year-old. Van Wolfswinkel made his professional debut in April of 2008 with Vitesse, and now returns for an undisclosed fee.

Van Wolfswinkel came to Norwich in 2013 with much fanfare, signing for a reported fee of $11 million – a club record signing at the time.

He proceeded to score just a single goal in 25 appearances during his first season in the Premier League, with Norwich finding itself relegated. He moved to Ligue 1 on loan with Norwich in the Championship, but still managed just five goals in 28 league appearances with St. Etienne. He never made another appearance for the Canaries, instead moving on loan again Real Betis last season, but flopped there too, scoring just once in 16 league appearances.

“I debuted in professional football on behalf of Vitesse and that is something you never forget,” van Wolfswinkel said upon signing. “After several foreign adventures I look forward to returning to the Dutch fields. I hope to find my niche and want to play well and add many goals and assists for Vitesse.”

Report: Arsenal continues to push for Lacazette transfer, readies another bid

LISBON, PORTUGAL - JULY 23:  Lyon's forward Alexandre Lacazette celebrates scoring Lyon«s goal during the Friendly match between Sporting CP and Lyon at Estadio Jose Alvalade on July 23, 2016 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
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According to Friday’s edition of French publication L’Equipe, Arsenal is set to table yet another improved bid for Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette should the current one of $44 million be rejected.

The Gunners have spent little this transfer window, with the capture of Granit Xhaka their only incoming purchase thus far, and it has unsettled many supporters. The club has looked to calm those fears, going so far as to claim they are unable to spend big like many others across England, but on the inside they appear ready to spend for the French frontman.

Should Arsenal submit yet another bid for Lacazette, it would be their third. An initial bid for $39 million was rejected earlier this week, the Ligue 1 side announced on Wednesday.

“The reality is that the Arsenal made an offer of £30m,” the club confirmed in a statement, “which Olympique Lyonnais did not respond to for one reason only: OL wishes to keep Alexandre Lacazette because he is irreplaceable and one of the major leaders of Bruno Genesio’s group.”

The Frenchman scored 21 goals last season in Ligue 1 play, including 11 goals in the season’s final 10 games. His total haul was second in the league behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s whopping 38.

It seems that, with this report out in public, Lyon would be silly to accept the new bid, given that Arsenal is likely to have another improved one soon to follow.

Europa League qualifying roundup: West Ham falls in Slovenia

NYON, SWITZERLAND - AUGUST 08:  The UEFA Europa League trophy is displayed during the 2014/15 UEFA Europa League Play-off round draw at the UEFA headquarters, The House of European Football on August 8, 2014 in Nyon, Switzerland.  (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
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In what is often described as more of a distraction than anything for English teams, the Europa League third qualification round is under way, and a Premier League club is in danger of crashing out of the competition prior to the group stage for the third straight season.

West Ham fell 2-1 at NK Domzale, the third-placed finishers in the Slovenian league last season. Mark Noble grabbed an 18th-minute penalty, the only takeaway from an otherwise depressing road result. On the other side, 24-year-old Matic Crnic scored twice to put Domzale through.

Last season, the Hammers also dropped out of the competition in the third qualification round, to Romanian club Astra Giurgiu, although they had wins in the first and second rounds after entering the competition via fair play. In addition, Southampton also crashed out of last year’s Europa League in the playoff round to Danish side FC Mitdjylland. Hull City dropped out of the tournament two seasons ago in the playoff round.

West Ham has the opportunity to turn things around at home in a week as they host Domzale at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday, August 4 in what will be West Ham’s first competitive game in their new home.

Other notable scores from Europa League qualification include:

  • Lille 1-1 Gabala FC
  • Panathinaikos 1-0 AIK
  • Genk 1-0 Cork
  • Pandurii Targu Jiu 0-3 Maccabi Tel Aviv
  • Videoton 0-1 Midtjylland
  • Hertha BSC 1-0 Bronby
  • AZ Alkmaar 1-0 Giannina

Napoli chief calls Gonzalo Higuain a “traitor,” striker hits back

Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain shows the Juventus' jersey as he arrives in the team headquarters in Turin, Italy, Wednesday July 27, 2016. Italian champion Juventus said Tuesday it has signed  Higuain from Serie A rival Napoli for 90 million euros ($99 million). (Alessandro Di Marco/Ansa via Ap)
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Gonzalo Higuain’s summer move to Juventus has not come without bad blood.

When the 28-year-old striker moved from Naples to Turin thanks to Juventus activating his release clause, it left Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis with a sour taste in his mouth. “There are those who say that talk of betrayal is an exaggeration, but I think the opposite,” De Laurentiis told Corierre dello Sport. “Because, in this decision, there is the full sense of betrayal, which also includes ingratitude.”

“We never seriously thought he would leave. Nor that he would have erased in a flash the memories of his three years in Naples.”

That didn’t sit well with Higuain, who fired back that it was de Laurentiis who drove him out of his former club.

“It was my decision to leave, but it was [De Laurentiis] who pushed me into making it,” Higuain told the media at his Juventus unveiling. “I’d like to thank the fans and my teammates, but not De Laurentiis. I no longer had a relationship with him; I couldn’t stand another minute with him.”

Higuain was more celebratory about his time at Stadio San Paulo. “These have been three amazing years,” Higuain said, “and I can only say thanks for all the love I was given, but this was a decision I took for my own reasons. I can understand that they are angry with me and I’ve seen the insults, but it is something I had to do and I’m happy about it.”

Napoli visits Turin in Serie A play on October 30, while Juventus will not travel to Naples for the return fixture until early April of 2017.