Glory Hunter – Barcelona 2022/23: The Squad

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Who are the boys who entertained you this season? In squad number order…

1 – Marc-Andre Ter Stegen
Age – Nationality: 31 – (24 caps)
Current Value: £60 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 58 (0) – 38
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘World class player
Not much to say here, beyond the reality of having a top drawer keeper who played to type. It clearly made sense to give him that new contract at the start of the summer. Happy to be here and willing to keep improving, the German international who isn’t Neuer continued to progress with the dedication of a born perfectionist and deserves every ounce of praise that he receives.

2 – Riqui Puig
Age – Nationality: 23 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £19.75 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 13 (0) – 2 – 5
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good balance and ability on the ball
Riqui’s figures include the loan period he spent at Basel, which ended at Christmas as he wasn’t being played in his natural position. Used as a fringe player by ourselves, he did well enough when we needed to overcome an injury crisis and was especially good against the lesser sides we faced. For all the promising signs he is currently considered to be the squad’s twelfth best central midfielder, which means that 2023/24 is likely to see him go out on loan once again.

3 – Gerard Pique
Age – Nationality: 36 – (102 caps)
Current Value: £5.25 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (1) – 7 – 0
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has shown a considerable decline in his strength
Gerard’s contract ends in two years’ time; surely by then it will be time to retire, having been usurped by younger models that can finally make his importance to the cause a thing of the past. Until then, this consummate team leader, who’s been a key player since 2008/09, remains our captain and steadily diminishing presence, his lack of any kind of remaining pace meaning it’s difficult to justify using him apart from against the softest of opposition. In reality, the next season could very well be his last. The decline is accelerating, and whilst I can’t bear to cut him just yet, we now have better options. How exactly do you finish the career of a club legend?

4 – Hector Bellerin
Age – Nationality: 28 – (5 caps)
Current Value: £56 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Wing Back (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 32 (0) – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.07
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Should be considered a leading First Division player
A fine first year back at the Camp Nou for Hector, who showed his defensive aplomb again and again and became very much the first choice at right-back. Reliable and consistent, he was less exuberant in attacking play but as long as he maintained a good playing relationship with Messi or Dembele then his job was done – he did; it was. Manchester City and Juve want him, but they would have to offer far more than the £49.5 million we paid to make me consider letting him go.

5 – Sergio Busquets
Age – Nationality: 34 – (142 caps)
Current Value: £5.75 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (2) – 1 – 2
Average Rating: 6.82
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is performing below average in every area in key statistics for this defensive role
Sergio has handed in his transfer request, a consequence of his diminishing role in the side, and I have accepted it. Once among the club’s most important players, the Catalan legend is now in decline, still willing but far from as capable as he used to be. In fairness, it was always clear that part of this job was figuring out how to overhaul the old guard. Sergio’s been part of the cause since the Guardiola era, fifteen years ago, and I agree with him that it’s time to find new climes for him. He should be the first of the three team leaders to hang up his boots.

6 – Pau Torres
Age – Nationality: 26 – (22 caps)
Current Value: £65 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (4) – 8 – 3
Average Rating: 7.34
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans like the player
Acquired as part of the effort to overhaul the Barca defence and effectively replacing Umtiti, Pau grew quickly into the role and became key to the cause, a superb, tackling, marking and heading centre-back whose height advantage helped him to be a distinct threat in set-piece situations, adding eight goals to his account. The Spaniard ended up being part of our most important games, developed a great partnership with Skriniar, and I am happy to move forward with him.

7 – Antoine Griezmann
Age – Nationality: 32 – (112 caps)
Current Value: £64 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inside Forward (Left/Right); Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 29 (15) – 16 – 12
Average Rating: 7.34
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A perfectionist who constantly strives for improvement
A high performing star practitioner, it took a little while for Antoine to gain my affections, but he really shone when Messi was injured and he was tasked with taking over from the Little God on the right wing. Having performed fitfully as a striker, he played with revolutionary zeal in his new role and ended up pretty much usurping Coutinho from the left wing after Messi returned. Flexible and technically excellent, Antoine is critical to Barca, coming into the last year of his contract and will be offered a new deal to keep him here, even if age is beginning to slowly creep up on him.

8 – Bruno Guimaraes
Age – Nationality: 25 – (7 caps)
Current Value: £63 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (18) – 3 – 5
Average Rating: 6.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Passing ability underlines his technical prowess
Signed as a replacement for Miralem Pjanic and expected to bring the Brazilian verve to midfield that we lost with Arthur, Bruno pretty much fit the brief, impressing early though by the season’s end he had been overshadowed by the virtuosity of Bennacer. His passing and vision are brilliant, and his adeptness at finding openings and playing killer balls are a real plus for us. There’s always a great assist in Bruno, and generally great player on hand to take advantage of them.

9 – Sir Harrington Kane
Age – Nationality: 29 – (80 caps)
Current Value: £92 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 35 (7) – 18 – 5
Average Rating: 7.02
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Gets crowd going
An £83 million signing by Koeman in 2021, Harrington has steadily adapted to life outside London, an endlessly tricksy forward who has an unerring capacity to produce when he really needs to, and displaying a goalscoring range that possibly can’t be found anywhere else in world football. Technically superb and a role model for younger players, there’s no doubt that he fits in within our set-up. His contract finishes in 2024 and it’s for certain that we will need to pay him more money to compel his hand to reach the new deal signing pen.

10 – Lionel Messi
Age – Nationality: 35 – (152 caps)
Current Value: £7.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (6) – 13 – 12
Average Rating: 7.77
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The player’s recent performances have been nothing short of sensational
Sometimes, a great player somehow adds extra qualities to the cause, finding ways to overcome elements like creeping age and his evident physical decline. Despite being considered a lesser player than many of his contemporaries, Leo is quite simply Mr Barcelona, a talismanic presence who innately understands the importance of playing well and taking it the opposition. Tricky and vastly experienced, his touch, flair and balance make him a magician on the ball, so I need to see beyond the adverse elements and keep him on. For once, it’s the player who will decide when it’s time to go. For now, he stays.

11 – Ansu Fati
Age – Nationality: 20 – (30 caps)
Current Value: £76 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (14) – 13 – 2
Average Rating: 6.91
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to do the unexpected is one of the main reasons behind his ability to go past his man
The team’s future is built around someone like Ansu, the Bissau born winger who is now a Spaniard, an increasingly influential player whose talent levels are enough to put him beyond Coutinho in the left wing starting role. Going forward, the aim is to alternate him with Griezmann, and occasionally take advantage of his flexibility to try him on the right and even in a forward’s role. He can do it all naturally. He’s important.

12 – Ousmane Dembele
Age – Nationality: 26 – (44 caps)
Current Value: £72 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 15 (12) – 10 – 7
Average Rating: 7.41
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to dribble makes him a difficult opponent to come up against
On the one hand, Ousmane is an established player, expensively signed, whose steady mission to replace Messi is going pretty well. Fast and creative, the almost impossible job of overhauling a GOAT is largely progressing as positively as it can. The downside is his problem with injuries, the reality that Ousmane was unable to play three games without incurring a knock that would keep him out for the next three. All this despite rotating him in and out of the starting eleven to preserve his fragile fitness levels. Six separate injuries across 2022/23, ruling him out for a combined eleven weeks, undermined the good stuff he produced when he played. And it was good. The jury is therefore out. Ousname is coming into the last year of his contract, and he will more than earn a new one, however if the right offer from elsewhere comes along it will be tempting to take advantage and look elsewhere.

13 – Neto
Age – Nationality: 33 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £775,000 (approaching end of contract)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Sweeper Keeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 0 – 0
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Decent player for most First Division sides
For my money, a keeper so inferior to ter Stegen that it was only worth calling on his services if the German ever got injured (he didn’t). That in itself is not a reason for letting Neto leave. He’s fine, happy enough to play second fiddle presumably forever, however some toe-rag once upon a time thought it was worth handing £26 million to Valencia for him, and offered him a contract that pays £105,000 per week. Little wonder that the Barca wage budget is spiralling out of control, right? In his four years with us the Brazilian has played a total of sixteen league games, surely only a madman’s idea of good value for money, so it’s time to part ways and to offer a first team opportunity to Inaki Pena, impressing on loan at Levante, homegrown, ready and considerably cheaper.

14 – Coutinho
Age – Nationality: 30 – (88 caps)
Current Value: £74 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Attacking Midfielder/Inverted Winger (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 (20) – 7 – 7
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Very technical
In the wake of Neymar’s big money snatch and grab by PSG a number of years ago, Barca have been trying to demonstrate that they’re the big cheese on the shelf by lavishing huge sums on star players. The message is clear – forget that dude, how about Dembele, or Griezmann, or indeed this fella, a rather incredible £137 million paid to Liverpool just to prove a point. The Scousers must have been dancing in the streets. Coutinho’s a very good player and has never finished a season at the Camp Nou with an average rating below 7.00, but the sums involved are simply ruinous. He earns £400,000 on a weekly basis, and the coaches consider him to be only the sixth best left winger in the squad, and for that matter he’s ranked fourth at AMC, a position we don’t even use. There’s no justifying his presence, and by the end of the season I preferred Fati and Griezmann over him. I want his salary back in the budget, and as a consequence will be looking to move him on in the summer. The chances are I will get nothing like his market value in terms of a transfer fee, but it’s time to move on.

15 – Milan Skriniar
Age – Nationality: 28 – (59 caps)
Current Value: £65 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (2) – 9 – 1
Average Rating: 7.34
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Strength and stamina make him a very good athlete
What a guy. Milan, a £73 million capture from Inter by Ronald Koeman, turned out to be a great bit of business. He’s our best centre-back, a natural leader who has played with authority and largely filled his brief at suggesting a future for Barca beyond Gerard Pique. I don’t think there’s much less to say about this consistent, committed defender who loves his life in Catalonia and never does less than his best. He’s also scored nine goals, part a testament to those pinpoint Messi crosses but also his heading ability in dangerous positions.

16 – Pedri
Age – Nationality: 20 – (2 caps)
Current Value: £71 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Left/Right)/Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 (10) – 9 – 3
Average Rating: 7.03
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Made improvements on his passing
An important homegrown product who’s wanted – fruitlessly, I expect – by Arsenal, Pedri was someone who left me pondering for a while over his best position. Is he a left winger, or a central midfielder? The answer is both. Though not the team’s best player in either position, at least not yet, he’s done a fine job throughout and ended the campaign as a legitimately good option in the middle of the park. His eye for a killer pass always makes him a threat, and in classic Barca style he likes nothing better than a mazy dribble, which leaves me thinking we have someone who’s going to be a bit special on our hands.

17 – Ismael Bennacer
Age – Nationality: 25 – (49 caps)
Current Value: £62 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (14) – 1 – 11
Average Rating: 7.26
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Dictates tempo
After keeping tabs on Ismael throughout my time at Napoli, I finally made him mine at the Camp Nou, motivated by another team’s offer and the prospect of having a squad option who I admired. It turned out that my instincts were correct. Ismael developed into an excellent central midfielder, raising his game to make himself an essential playmaker and producing eleven assists. His game is underpinned by excellent passing and dribbling skills, perfect for us, though his finishing needs considerable amounts of work. Ismael’s value has risen and he’s now wanted by both Manchester clubs, but understandably I don’t want to sell.

18 – Tammy Abraham
Age – Nationality: 25 – (12 caps)
Current Value: £41.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 12 (2) – 12 – 0
Average Rating: 7.31
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Bringing Tammy in was a risk. He’d lost the art of scoring at Chelsea and we opted to recruit him on loan, on a ‘try before you buy’ basis with a sum of £21.5 million built into his package if we wanted to make his stay a permanent one. The English striker responded with a game of growing confidence, emerging as possibly our best and most natural finisher from an advanced forward’s position. A number of Barca players are thought of as superior forwards overall, but a lot of non-scoring duties are baked into their roles and Tammy, brought to pad out his goals account, did exactly that. Now fair enough, you can argue that having the likes of Messi and Griezmann firing killer balls in your direction should make you capable of finishing some of them, yet it was the reliability that struck me, his sure-footedness and developing confidence when presented with scoring opportunities. His final one goal-per-game figure is excellent and makes meeting his buy-out a no-brainer.

19 – Marc Cucurella
Age – Nationality: 24 – (2 caps)
Current Value: £51 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Wing-Back (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (0) – 0 – 5
Average Rating: 7.03
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Driven in pursuit of his goals
Marc was restored to Barcelona as Jordi Alba was considered to be a waning force and Junior Firpo simply not good enough. A left-back whose career has already seen us pay on two separate occasions for him (some dolt sold him to Eibar before we got him back, and later he was packed off to Getafe and was subsequently re-signed by me), I view him as an unassuming and reliable player and a more defensive-minded alternative to Grimaldo. Fast, clever and highly ambitious, he’s determined to improve and to demonstrate that he belongs, and I think he’s entirely on the right track. His accomplishments this season have recently elevated him to national team selection.

20 – Sergi Roberto
Age – Nationality: 31 – (30 caps)
Current Value: £49.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Full-Back (Right)/Box to Box Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (0) – 0 – 5
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Works well within a team
Ah, Sergi. A natural in two positions but a master of neither, his very flexibility has stood him in good stead, and he has performed well enough either as a right-back or in central midfield. The trouble is that we now have two better options in both areas, and the player is entering the final year of a contract that pays him £175,000 per week, essentially a reward for sticking around. I don’t want to pay him this much, and as a consequence my temptation is to sell him off – Juventus want him – especially as we have several young guns (Wague, Dest, Emerson) who are queuing up to take over at right-back.

21 – Frenkie de Jong
Age – Nationality: 26 – (50 caps)
Current Value: £80 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (6) – 1 – 7
Average Rating: 6.89
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is a true model citizen
This is a strange one. Frenkie never performed especially well for me, leading me to wonder whether central midfield was our best use of him. Should he be a DM instead, or even a centre-back? I just ended up getting better from the likes of Pedri, Bennacer and Moriba, so while there’s no doubting his world class credentials I am tempted to bite if Manchester United’s interest in him develops into a big offer. We will see. There’s a big star here, but he hasn’t been operating at that level.

22 – Florentino Luis
Age – Nationality: 23 – (18 caps)
Current Value: £62 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker (DM)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (7) – 4 – 2
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
A young defensive midfielder who was signed by me as our long-term replacement for Sergio Busquets, Florentino developed into the number one choice in his position, performing at an above average level throughout and making the aging legend look slow and frankly past it in contrast. Consistent and reliable, with coaches making note of his constant efforts to let little get past him, the Portuguese has become an excellent defensive midfield specialist and our preferred starter going into 2023/24.

23 – Samuel Umtiti
Age – Nationality: 29 – (31 caps)
Current Value: £58 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 14 (1) – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Tries to play way out of trouble
I definitely dropped the ball here. Samuel was entering the last year of his contract and I offered him a new deal, ultimately increasing his salary to an extravagant £325,000 per week until 2025. Big mistake. The next thing I knew, he was demanding to be transfer-listed, and then we both watched as the offers for his services didn’t come flooding in. It didn’t matter what level I set his asking price at, nor my willingness to pay a portion of his salary. There was no interest. He’s valued too highly and paid far too well, and in truth he’s fairly average, making him the equivalent of an architectural folly, nice to look at but essentially useless. Barca’s turnover can absorb the blow of someone who could realistically sit in the B team until the end of his contract, but it isn’t good and I have definitely messed up in this instance.

24 – Alex Grimaldo
Age – Nationality: 27 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £33 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Complete Wing-Back (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 13 (0) – 0 – 4
Average Rating: 7.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Improved on his technique over the last two months
The second time I have signed Alex, he was of course once a cornerstone of my Napoli side before Mourinho no longer wanted him and made him available for a cut-price £12.5 million. Brought in because (i) he’s homegrown (ii) I know his worth, Alex has simply been a sensation, overcoming his relatively limited abilities to score nearly an 8.00 playing average and impressing everyone with his winning attitude and technical merits. He’s also finally consigned Jordi Alba to history. Having two ‘trained at the club’ stalwarts in Alex and Marc is pretty much the perfect scenario.

31 – Ilaix Moriba
Age – Nationality: 20 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £53 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 26 (10) – 5 – 8
Average Rating: 7.11
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a physical player
Long-term readers of the site will know that Ilaix became the star player for my Derby County team in FM20. The chances of him doing the same here are less, because the playing standard is at the very highest compared with what I had at my disposal at Pride Park, however that doesn’t take away from a highly positive campaign, on in which he finished bang in form, a goalscoring and assist-heavy threat whose flair, dribbling skills and all-round technical virtues are transforming him into a proper crowd pleaser. Nobody has a bad word to say for him, and I’m sure he is a rare instance of a Barca player who is being underpaid considering his worth. That situation will be remedied.

33 – Ilias Akhomach
Age – Nationality: 19 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £9.25 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 2 (0) – 1 – 2
Average Rating: 7.90
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Could improve a lot in the future
Ilias spent most of the season on loan at Sporting Gijon, before returning to us injured and being healthy enough to start in the last two league matches. He was excellent, a bright attacking force, and he will need to be. My plan is to sharpen his talents in an effort to try and lessen the eventual impact of Messi’s retirement, and while no one can truly replace the little God Ilias is definitely a special talent, someone to look out for, looking forward to increased playing time as we look to the future.

Now a note from your writeras ever, I have no idea how many people are reading this (hopefully a few!), but I am having to take a short break from updating due to real life things capturing my time. I know, it isn’t good and it won’t last forever, but I’m aiming to bring the story back at some point in June. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and a wee request from me that you perhaps consider saying hello in the comments. It’s good to feel that I’m not howling into the void here… Uncle T

Glory Hunter – Barcelona 2022/23: That Was the Season That Was

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

It’s the end of another long campaign. The players are off for a well-earned rest – bear in mind that many of them had the little matter of a World Cup in the middle of a full league calendar, many, many games, so a full recharge is required. For me, the inquest begins here…

Glory Hunter Progress

I could walk away now. Barca won the league and the Spanish Cup, so there’s nothing keeping me here. It helps that they claimed the Champions League also. In many ways, going now would be best, Hansi Flick style – after the sort of year we’ve had, there’s really only one direction in which we can go. On the other hand, they’re so much fun. Another season then, at least one more, and then look for a plummy job elsewhere. Given there’s plenty of time remaining I would like the next assignment to be a proper challenge. Anyone in France apart from PSG would be a long-haul assignment, or perhaps a great English team that has fallen short of their promise and expectations.

Season Review

Well, that went all right, didn’t it? Let’s start with the new signings, of whom defender Pau Torres was considered to be the pick. Now valued at £65 million, which is eight million more than we paid for him, Pau’s mission was to move Barca past the axiom of Pique (getting old) and Umtiti (doesn’t want to stay, not all that good) and largely succeeded, forming a partnership with Milan Skriniar that became the side’s bedrock.

The other arrivals who made a great impact were Ismael Bennacer, Hector Bellerin, Alex Grimaldo, Florentino Luis and the largely sensational loan signing of Tammy Abraham, who scored a staggering twelve goals in as many appearances and is pretty much a shoo-in for being with us in the new season. Bruno Guimaraes and Marc Cucurella were very good also, indeed I’d have to argue that the club’s money was well spent this time around.

The Camp Nou was expanded and still managed to achieve a 90% average attendance, very good considering the middling standard of many of the sides we faced. Clearly this isn’t Napoli. The Catalans will come, and they’ll be here expecting good things.

The club’s reputation hasn’t changed, which is good because it was already at five stars. Our revenues were boosted with £207 million raked in via sponsorship deals, a scary amount of Wonga. Most areas of income were increased, and we also managed to sell 1,545,355 shirts. I’ll leave you to guess which was the most popular name to have on the back.

Here’s our best line-up. You’ll note the absence of Pique (largely overhauled), Alba (sharply on the slide), Busquets (not as good as Luis) and Sergi Roberto (better options elsewhere), however despite his two months off Lionel Messi continues to rule the set-up. Sometimes, a player just transcends elements like age and fatigue, and continue to give everything they’ve got. And when what they’ve got is a lot, you’re left with a Little God.

Despite all the plaudits that continue to flow in his direction, Messi lost out in the Fans’ Player of the Year stakes to Antoine Griezmann, a player who grew steadily in authority over the course of the term. I wasn’t sure about him at first, yet by the end I couldn’t imagine a future without him. I was very pleased to see Ilaix Moriba named as our best young player – a richly deserved accolade for the midfielder. Messi will have to be content with being named World Footballer of the Year, and Best Spanish Player. Marc-Andre ter Stegen won both the Spanish and Champions League goalkeeper awards. I was named manager of the season.

Individual plaudits are:

  • Top Scorer – Harrington Kane, with 18 goals (I think Tammy will give him a run for his money in the new year)
  • Most Assists – Lionel Messi (12)
  • Most Player of the Match awards – Messi again (15)
  • Highest Average Rating – guess who (7.8)
  • Most Passes Completed per 90 Minutes – Florentino Luis (73)

Miles White of The Coaches’ Voice opined that ‘Barcelona started better than anyone else and ran with the all the way to the title.’ At Voetbalzone, Rick Molenaar chipped in with ‘The spell of football at the start of the season was the making of Barcelona. It really set them up for success.’ Nice.

The Wider World and Available Jobs

Back at my old stamping ground, Jose Mourinho achieved great things in romping to a third successive Serie A title for Napoli. They racked up 101 points to finish ten clear of Juventus, with Meret once again earning the praise for another brilliant season in the nets. Inter and Fiorentina completed the top four. Juve had to content themselves with the Italian Cup.

Manchester City ended their crosstown rivals’ dominance in England, winning the Premier League via the silky skills of Bernardo Silva. United could only finish third, tucked in betwixt Liverpool and Chelsea. A largely predictable table saw the relegation of Leeds, West Brom and punching bags Luton Town.

An eleventh consecutive Bundesliga win for Bayern Munich (yawn), who finished thirteen points ahead of Monchengladbach and Dortmund. The latter gained some revenge in the DFB-Pokal, beating Bayern 2-0 at the Olympiastadion, but on the whole the prospects of overhauling the Munich-based giants look distant.

A similar state of affairs in France, with PSG claiming 101 points and carving open a 21-point lead over runners-up Monaco. Erling Haaland turned out to be as irresistible as expected, finishing the division’s leading scorer, while Mbappe earned an 8.00 playing average.

We will face Tottenham in the European Super Cup. A tense Europa League final against Juventus was finally won on penalties, after goals from Carlos Vinicius and Andrea Horta only served to cancel each other out.

Available top flight jobs (which I don’t want) amount to a grand total of one, which is with Brest in the French Ligue Un Uber Eats.

Personal Development

My reputation has gained another half-star, which makes me superb. The Barca effect has increased my earnings to £155,000 per week, which is around a quarter what we pay to Griezmann and Messi, and I am now fluent in both Italian and Spanish. The latter is very easy to learn, apparently.

Over my three years, I have spent a grand total of £479 million on twenty eight players, while selling sixty one for £337 million. I am now sneaking into the Hall of Fame picture also. Tucked into third place amongst English managers, I sit between Brian Clough and Bobby Robson. It’s a bit depressing to see no recent faces among the English selection, but that’s football, I guess. Here are my season statistics, and those for my overall career:

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: June 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

It’s Liverpool in the Champions League Final. They have finished as runners-up in England, twelve points distant of Manchester City but just as potent as ever, and of course they hold a personal hex over me. I never beat them when I was at Napoli, and I’m hopeful that being in charge of a better team today will make the difference.

Jurgen Klopp had added to his ranks judiciously. I think I reported earlier on their £97 million capture of Joao Felix. They can also showcase Marcelo Brozovic (Inter’s crunching midfielder, a £47 million acquisition), Dodo (Shakhtar full-back and onetime Napoli target, costing £23.5 million) and exciting former Gremio prospect Matheus Henrique. There have been few notable outgoings; the best known is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, now playing in Italy after a £25 million transfer to Milan. On the whole, Liverpool have more options than they used to have They’re a better team than they were; you won’t necessarily see the same faces week after week, a star eleven that is run into the ground.

In Munich, they line up with Alisson in goal, protected by a centre-back pairing of Van Dijk and former Brescia defender Andrea Papetti. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are their intrepid full-backs. The opposition field a similar formation to ourselves, a defensive midfielder (Fabinho) sitting behind their central partnership of Brozovic and Matheus Henrique. Joao Felix plays on the opposite flank to the considerable right-wing powerhouse that is Mo Salah, and Lautaro Martinez is a formidable figure in attack.

The match boils down to a lesson in taking your chances when they arrive. By the final whistle Liverpool will have had more scoring opportunities than we do, especially once Bennacer is dismissed for a second yellow early in the second half. A combination of wasteful shooting and ter Stegen displaying superb concentration levels are what defies them, while we put three past Alisson to seal an emphatic 3-0 victory. The sent off player is also one of our best. His killer long ball picks out Ansu Fati, cutting in from the left wing at the fifteen-minute mark. Easing past Alexander-Arnold (always better attacking than in defence), the Catalan fires a raking shot that beats Alisson and hits the top corner. Around twenty minutes later, another Bennacer pass picks out Harrington Kane, who turns Papetti the wrong way before finding the sweet spot. That’s what we pay him for, the consummate finisher at the highest level. Much later, as Liverpool are pressing their man advantage and our 2-0 lead looks fragile, we earn a corner kick. Griezmann takes it, finding Milan Skriniar in a sea of penalty area shirts who heads in from close range.

And that’s it. Job done. All three scorers are great. Bennacer played a dream game before his red card, and ter Stegen had a superb outing. This victory is our seventh in the competition. We’re still six tropies short of equalling Real Madrid’s European Cup record, yet it’s a special evening when everything goes right for us.

The end of a wildly successful season then, and I’m left to wonder where next for the mission. I imagine all this makes for thrilling reading – Barcelona are a good team that wins things – but it is a Glory Hunter challenge, and the possibility of screwing up here is keeping me motivated.

The individual pitfalls for Barca are what keeps things interesting. Sure, we have a very good side. You would imagine the Camp Nou playing host to nothing less. But it isn’t without its issues, and I would outline them as follows:

  • Aging legends. Ronald Koeman dealt with the concern about former greats by ignoring it completely and bestowing to his successor the question marks over Alba, Busquets, Pique and Messi. The former is the easiest. Jordi is waning rapidly and ready for a new challenge. His contract finishes in a year’s time and he just completing a loan half-season that hopefully serves as a shop window. Busquets wants a new challenge. I have accepted his transfer request. I think I can perhaps squeeze one more season out of Pique before age completely takes over his chances of playing at the top level, and Messis’s Messi. The Little God. Like everyone, there’s an extent at which I dance to his messianic tune.
  • More aging players. I have in part dealt with this by selling off Pjanic and Wijnaldum, but still there’s Philippe Countinho, fantastically remunerated at a rate of £300,000 per week, and Antoine Griezmann, on roughly twice that amount but a genuine star name. Both players’ contracts are up in summer 2024. I should also highlight Sergi Roberto, a Catalan who’s 31 and neither a first pick at right-back nor in central midfield. Is it time to cash in?
  • Wage bill. Barca can pay monstrous salaries, but the bill is creeping up to the point where it threatens to go out of control. Currently, £6.4 million is siphoned out of the coffers on a weekly basis. I think as a minimum it should be under the six million mark, which means selling some of the ‘stars’. As an idea of how pampered some of our players are, if I managed to offload Busquets, Alba and Umtiti, all of whom on the transfer list, this would save around £800,000 per week. Crazy, and I’m not blameless in this. I am the dope who offered a new contract to Umtiti, raising his wage by close to a hundred big ones per week, for someone who wants to leave and is attracting precisely no buyers.

  • Spending sprees. Ever since the sale of Neymar, Barca seem to have treated most transfer windows like an opportunity to demand to the world that they are big shots. Coutinho, Dembele and Griezmann all arrived for fees north of a hundred million. De Jong, Kane and Skriniar weren’t much less. As I see it, there’s just no need to go nuts for players who we quite fancy. Each superstar signed is a homegrown product kept in his place for another season, and I would like this trend to finish. Various people either in the B team or out on loan – Inaki Pena, Jean-Clair Todibo, Moussa Wague, Nico, Ilias Ahkonach – deserve to be considered for future inclusion, and I’m not above setting aside the acquiring of big names for the promotion of players who are bubbling under and are working towards having their shot at the big time.

The transfer budget lavished upon me is an initial £158 million (it was originally more than that, but built into next season’s spends is a reduction in the amount allocated for wages, which I see as a hint). We aren’t scrabbling around for loose change, by anyone’s standards. The relative parsimony at Napoli is very much a thing of the past. That said, there are no clear and obvious areas where we are short on talent, and while the little devil sitting on my shoulder is urging me to spend, go on spend it, spend, SPEND! I need to be careful.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: May 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The deal going into the season’s final month is straightforward. Five more victories and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. For now, we can finish as low as fourth, but that would take both a collapse of monumental proportions on our part and constant wins from the other three. We just have to hold our nerve. And beat Real Madrid in the Champions League return match.

To clear things up, this game is first up, a grudge encounter at the Bernabeu that is finally balanced enough to make me name my strongest eleven. The home side is of a similar mind, fielding the enterprising Nabil Fekir behind Luka Jovic and Brenner, and it looks as though it may pay off in the tenth minute when the former runs through the gap between Skriniar and Torres, collects Ceballos’s pass and volleys home. It’s a training ground goal to concede, one for which I berate the players as I don’t want us to lose concentration so easily. At times like these, when everything is on the line, you need your best players to produce. Twenty-three minutes later, Messi emerges from another Real attack and dribbles deep into their half. He picks out Harrington Kane, the only player in front of him and slackly covered by Ceballos. The English striker is able to keep away from his marker and sidestep Courtois before hitting a sweet shot into the net.

The Real players try to find another gear. They’re 3-1 down. The fans are angry and those efforts to redress the balance become more constant and frantic. Now requiring three goals against a notoriously difficult to beat defence, they end up collects as many bookings as shots amassed. They’re also open to the counter, something that devastates and finally kills them off late in the game. This is the moment for Antoine Griezmann, a fresh pair of legs for the inconstant Fati, collecting Torres’s through ball and cutting inside from the left wing, firing through the keeper’s legs to make it 2-1 on the night. And with that the illustrious Madrid side are undone. It’s been an even game, but defensively we have shown our quality, particularly the solid Torres, and we have also done enough in the attacking quarters to see ourselves safely over the line.

Liverpool await in the Final, to be played at Stadion Munchen, the hyper-modern home of Bayern Munich that has always looked to me like a gigantic Liquorice All-Sort. The Scousers played a pair of 1-1 draws against Manchester United, the two titans finally separated in extra time by Mohamed Salah’s sweet left foot. You may recall Liverpool turning out to be impassable opposition for Napoli, so there’s something of a personal grudge match about this one.

But first the league. Our march to the title begins on a perfect spring afternoon at the Camp Nou. Our opposition is Cadiz, who are turning their promotion season into a fine effort to beat the drop. With little left to play for, they should be beatable and the four goals we put past them are testament to that. Tammy Abraham states another strong case for being added to the squad permanently, scoring twice and looking like the consummate thirty-goals striker that any side wants to add. In fairness, when you have the likes of Griezmann and Dembele providing quality assists on a plate it would be impolite not to convert them into goals, don’t you think, and Spanish defences haven’t yet learned that Tammy needs to be covered in much the same way they are all over Kane whenever he plays. Gerard Pique heads in from a Griezmann corner on the strike of half-time, and Coutinho adds a fourth to keep the run going.

Sporting Gijon (Hee-Hon) are next. Another mid-table outfit, earning plaudits by doing things the right way with a mainly Spanish set-up. I should have precious few doubts about our resolve by this point, but Hee-Hon overturn us. Striker Stiven Plaza shocks our defence with a goal in the fifteenth minute, and then conjure a winner after Tammy Abraham’s reply by unpicking us on a set piece, Modibo Sagnan heading in the Pipi free kick that we appear to stand and watch. Now, anyone can lose at any time they like, but I’m criticised harshly after this, as is the team, and I can’t argue with the slings and arrows. Gerard Pique is a particular target for my ire; he’s slow, running at half the speed of everything around him, and it’s a concern. On the whole we are nothing like good enough here, expecting to show up and be gifted the points by sheer virtue of who we are, and that just isn’t how football works. A diffident and poor evening’s work.

Villarreal overcome Atletico to end the other Madrid team’s slim chance of catching up with us, and we have to lick our wounds at another away ground, El Sadar, home of Atletico Pamplona. Jose Angel Ziganda’s outfit look relegation bound. They should be easy enough to see off, but the Hee-Hon reverse has added an element of tension that perhaps is exactly what we need in order to stay focused during the run-in. Real continue winning, and the straightforward 2-0 result we produce eases our nerves somewhat. It isn’t terrific from us. A Lionel Messi double shows that when we’re in any doubt about our abilities it takes a true legend to step up and lead the way, and perhaps more importantly the defence steps up to allow nothing more than two off-target shots on goal. But this is the Little God’s game. He’s incredible, dazzling the crowd with his skills and commitment, and leading them to feel there’s probably nothing they could do against such a divine player.

In midweek we’re at home to Real Hispalis. Potentially they’re a difficult opponent, but we make short work of them at the Camp Nou, with goals from Coutinho, Harrington Kane and a late Antoine Griezmann piledriver to which they have no response. Enterprising midfielder Thiago Almada is dismissed after an angry, frustrated performance, which sums up their evening as they make little impression on Ter-Stegen’s goal. An efficient and dominant victory, which is all I can ask for at this point in the campaign.

By the time we go to Levante we are finally at match-point. Win here and it’s over. The home team are capable, notably Nico in midfield, who’s on loan from ourselves and will surely earn a place in our squad next season, but Paco Lopez’s team have secured their mid-table berth and have precious little left to play for. It’s a 3-0 win against a side that places nine men in defensive-minded positions, looking to put players behind the ball but quite unable to stop our clear virtuosity as Pau Torres, Antoine Griezmann and Bruno Guimaraes cause the damage. Another Lionel Messi masterclass, the diminutive God buzzing everywhere as he plays himself into space, fields defence-splitting passes as a matter of course and generally becomes impossible to contain. Of the three remaining old legends in the side, he’s assuredly the one I can’t imagine a near future without. Sure, see off Busquets and Pique, but lose Messi and we are absolutely the lesser, and I can’t imagine that scenario in the short-term.

Title secured and the remaining two games remain as an extended celebration. We have Liverpool to play in early June and it’s important to keep my best players fresh for it, so I field some lesser lights and see off Alaves 2-0 and treat the supporters to a  6-0 demolition of Girona. Both games feature starting turns from young right winger Ilias Akhomach, the player selected to ultimately take over from Messi (no pressure then) but who puts in two superb performances, scoring against Alaves and effervescent in the Girona win. The finale is a delicious display of what we can do. Gerard Pique earns some credit for his two goals in the final victory, a committed display that contrasts with the distracted work put in by Umtiti (nobody wants him, and he can’t be surprised after this shop window opportunity produces absolutely nothing). Frenkie de Jong plays both games in defensive midfield, my effort to find a place for him in which he can excel, and where he neither impresses nor fails. Manchester United have been long-term suitors for him, and despite his obvious talent the Dutchman has been our one midfielder to struggle to assert his abilities and I may be tempted into letting him go for the right price.

Here’s the final league table. Despite the humiliation against Hee-Hon we were very good value for our favourite status, winning La Liga with something to spare and emerging with Messi considered the division’s best player, an accolade against which I have no argument. With this and the Spanish Cup in my pocket I could actually look elsewhere at this point, but it’s been a fun year in charge of a good team, and for now I want to go nowhere. You don’t often get the opportunity to enjoy a side like Barcelona, after all, and despite our success it feels like a mission that hasn’t yet ended.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: April 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The highlight of the international break is the call-up and first caps for new Spanish star Marc Cucurella. He deserves it. Back at home, we review the intake of this year’s youth candidates. As promised, it’s a highly promising clutch of prospects. Patrick Kluivert, our Head of Youth Development, waxes lyrical about Amara Kelepliy, a 15 year old winger who stands at 5’ 2” but already comes in with a sharp suite of technical merits. There are the two players called Roger, one an attacking midfielder, the other a very fast right-back. Oscar and Nissim Weiss have the capacity to become central midfielders for us in the future. The latter is English and seems to have a smart reading of the game. It looks to me as though Barca knows how to source good young talent.

By the time we come to April Fool’s Day and a home game against Valencia, I can call on a full squad once again. Messi and Bellerin, who have both just returned from lengthy injury lay-offs, need to be used sparingly, but I expect to play them increasingly as the number of matches and the sheer tension develops. Of course, we can’t expect to keep the situation as it is forever. Frenkie de Jong lasts around twenty-five minutes before going down with a twisted ankle and four weeks when he will be out of action. Otherwise, we’re good enough to put down a spirited Valencia team. Despite squandering the chances, we produce for a 2-0 win. Antoine Griezmann scores early in the game, and then much, much later, as the visitors chase an equaliser, Bennacer provides the assist that Ousmane Dembele hits first time to beat the keeper. This is an important victory, against a side designed to challenge for the title. There are now eighteen points between us, which should be enough to kill off their pretensions.

Things get harder still as we travel back to my old haunt of Serie A and Internazionale. Now managed by Ernesto Valverde, the Nerazzurri are tucked neatly into third place, a bit distant of challenging Napoli and Juve for the top of the table but in their own way highly potent. Valverde has spent a lot of money to enhance his already pretty good ranks. After drafting in Gio Wijnaldum from ourselves, he has added Spurs’ Ryan Sessegnon on loan and plays him on the opposite flank to Kingsley Coman, a winger I really like who was signed for £39.5 million from Bayern. Midfield has been strengthened considerably by the acquisition of Ruben Neves, costing £68 million from Wolves. With the likes of Lukaku, Tagliafico, De Vries, Sensi, El Shaarawy, and intrepid right-back Achraf Hakimi all present and correct, they’re a stiff challenge, which they go on to  prove by beating us 1-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza. For long, long swathes it looks for all the world as though this will dribble out to a 0-0 result. The home team have the lion’s share of the scoring opportunities but Lukaku plays indecisively, Torres stopping the bulky striker from putting his anatomy in the way to divert assisted balls into the net. There isn’t much to us. Fati, Kane and Griezmann do little, and even Messi is marginalised by stuff Inter defending. In injury time, they finally get the breakthrough when a typical Hakimi maraud deep into our half leads to the cross that Stefano Sensi slams home for the winner.

1-0 isn’t a disastrous result to take back to the Camp Nou, but our toothlessness in attack is a concern. The Barca board expects, and going out of the Champions League at the Quarter-Final stage would be viewed as an aberration. Winning La Liga might save my bacon, but I’d prefer to avoid any further black marks beyond the criminally juicy contract I handed to Sam Umtiti, and to pile on the pressure we are taking on Real Madrid at the weekend.

This one is considered to be nothing short of a title decider. Win this and I think we will have widened the gap to almost insurmountable proportions. Lose and they come roaring back, and gain the satisfaction of having done the Classico double over us. I still smart from the defeat they handed to us back in the season’s early stages. It’s our only reverse in La Liga. I don’t like losing, not ever, and especially not to the preening jackanapes from the capital.

To everyone’s surprise, Maurizio Sarri orders his talented side to play a game of containment, expecting a rush of Barca pressure and attempting to halt us while stinging on the counter. The Camp Nou is a vast wall of noise, 103,700 attending on a gusty spring evening, a mass of expectation. We have to deliver, tearing into the opposition from the start and getting our reward in the seventeenth minute when Bennacer’s corner kick is headed viciously towards goal by Milan Skriniar. The effort is so powerful that Thibault Courtois can only palm the ball into his own net. In the second half, another corner is converted by Pau Torres’s header, and Real are undone. It surprises me that for all our good play, which we produce with nine shots on target, it’s set pieces that win the day. Griezmann is excellent as Messi is rested for the Inter return. Fati has one of his more exciting displays on the left. Real feel that if they stop Kane then they do the same to us, which isn’t true as we can score from various positions. Just as importantly, we restrict them from inflicting any punishment on Ter Stegen’s goal. The white shirts amass two shots during the entire game, an exercise in shutting the door on them. And with that a considerable hoodoo is broken.

In midweek, Inter bring the same spirit of halting our attacking elan to Catalonia and set out to defend their slim lead. I pick what I consider to be just about our best eleven, and watch as we pile into the Milanese visitors. We’re at our absolute best in defence, specifically in defensive midfield where Florentino Luis provides a masterclass in halting Inter attacks and sparking moves of our own. It takes us a while to get back on terms. In the fiftieth minute, as my fingernails fall victim to the tension, Luis fires a long ball that picks out Ansu Fati. The winger evades Hakimi and shoots a virtuous volley that beats Handanovic at his far corner. Lovely. Messi and Fati have two further efforts ruled out by VAR, both fairly, before substitute Tammy Abraham finally produces the game’s decisive moment. A Messi corner is headed towards goal by Skriniar. His shot clatters off the crossbar, but the Englishman is there and has to do nothing more than poke the ball over the line. It’s a win, claimed more closely than I would like but a win all the same.

In the Semi-Final we will almost inevitably come across Real Madrid once again. The Quarter-Final against Paris Saint-Germain is a pair of 3-1 results, the two sides using home advantage to their benefits and cancelling each other out. In the end penalties decide it. The French go home after Joao Cancelo’s climactic spot-kick is saved by Courtois. This sets up a clash with our bitter rivals that guarantees five matches against them this season. They’re up next, at the Camp Nou in the Spanish Cup Final.

We welcome Sarri’s Real in a Catalan rain shower, admiring the way they line up with a wall of defensive midfielders featuring Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Antonio Blanco. What they intend to do here is clear enough, Torres and Pique reminded to be mindful that Brenner is a considerable threat for the opposition. It isn’t a problem. As we pass through them ill discipline takes over for Real and when Ramos thugs Coutinho over in their box we have a thirty-first minute penalty. Harrington Kane takes it, not the guaranteed converter that I hope he would be, but he makes no mistake in sending Courtois the wrong way. Just before half-time, Coutinho fires a free-kick into the penalty area, where the terrific Ilaix Moriba beats the keeper with a header. Things get worse for Real in the second half. Sarri’s calls for passion are misheard through a fog of nicotine when Kroos piles into Dembele and earns himself a straight red card. We know we have won by this stage. Very late on, Bennacer collects Griezmann’s cross and cues the ball for Coutinho who both drives the ball home and collects the match ball. The Spanish Cup is ours, a thirty-second triumph in the competition.

Yet another banana skin awaits in midweek as we make the short journey to Estadio Cornella-El Prat to face Espanyol. The ‘other’ Catalan side can’t touch us in the league, but derbies contain risks of their own and they are very competently managed by Age Hareide. A 69 year old Norwegian who has picked Espanyol as his first non-Scandinavian assignment, the veteran manager was in charge of Denmark before coming here and picks a good side featuring striker Raul de Tomas and Sergi Darder in midfield. We come into this one feeling the weight of all those big matches. Messi starts, because I think it’s important to use someone who appreciates the merit of winning the Catalan Derby. Sergio Busquets captains, for much the same reason.

For much of the game it looks as though this isn’t going to go our way. The home side are ahead after the nineteenth minute, when Yanatan Cohen converts from de Tomas’s cross. It’s a nadir moment for Cucurella, whose job it is the mark the winger and instead falls over on the wet turf as Cohen gives him the slip. We move into attack mode, bringing on Coutinho and Griezmann for Fati and Kane, who aren’t making much of an impression. The former has his moment when Cabrera challenges him clumsily to gift us a seventy-eighth minute penalty. Lionel Messi converts. Later still, Messi lays the ball off the Antoine Griezmann in the area, who evades the luckless Cabrera and finds the net from close range. It’s a deserved win, a contest we have dominated, and a victory for our fighting spirit. Barca simply refuses to accept defeat here, battling until the final whistle, and in Messi we are fortunate enough to have an absolute winner who personifies everything about us that’s good.

First plays last at the weekend, as we venture deep into the Basque Country and Eibar. At last, a straightforward contest, one in which I can pick an eleven of back-ups – Umtiti gets the call – and save my best players for Real in the Champions League. The one starter who gets the nod is Ismael Bennacer, who is of course the injury victim here, collapsing to a rough tackle that twists his ankle and removes him from the contest for three weeks. This is bad. Bennacer has emerged as a potent deep lying playmaker for us, someone on whom we can depend, and now he’s gone. Not that his absence makes things much easier for Eibar. We score six unanswered goals, two apiece from Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, and best of all a brace for Tammy Abraham, who announces himself in predatory fashion and defies the beleaguered home team with his pace and shooting élan.

On to another clash with Real Madrid, the first leg played at home within a tie that must have the schedulers rubbing their hands with glee. If we played no one but Real, an endless cycle of head to heads, then they would probably be delighted. In the other half of the Champions League Semi-Final draw, it’s an equally embittered rivalry as Manchester United take on Liverpool. Spoiler alert – Liverpool win.

The first leg is to be played at home, and we come up with a fine 2-0 victory to give us an advantage. Pedro and a rare Florentino Luiz shot that fires through a sea of legs on its way to the back of the net do the business. In truth it’s all over by the end of the first half, Varane’s reply on the hour mark ruled out for offside representing their best opportunity. We’re imperious, especially at the back, as Brenner and Luka Jovic fail to find a way through.

A frantic April concludes with the visit of Villarreal. Even after this there are seven league games remaining, and the season is now feeling very long and absolutely gruelling. Thank goodness for a good squad. Abraham, Dembele and Riqui Puig makes our starting line-up, and then it all seems to go wrong when Yeremi Pino puts them in front straight from kick-off. It’s a horrible one to concede. The blame lies with Gerard Pique, who is starting to look very old and not so quick as he is unable to keep up with the marauding winger.

The visitors’ advantage forces us to move into the attack, producing a blizzard of shots that Villarreal are forced backwards to defend, DM Mattia Zaccagni emerging with real credit as he breaks things up with skill and concentration. But he’s one man, and he isn’t enough. By the end, Tammy Abraham has bagged a hat-trick, a brilliant personal display that makes his £21.5 million price tag look cheap indeed. Pau Torres heads in from a corner as we go on to record an important 4-1 victory. Over in Madrid, Real won’t give up, so wins like this one might look routine but are absolutely vital to the cause.

As it happens, our 4-1 against the Yellow Submarine coincides with a 2-0 reverse for the Madrid giants at Athletic Bilbao, which puts us thirteen points clear in the league. There are twenty-one still to play for. It isn’t over, but by now I feel that we would need to collapse completely to cough up the title. Surely it won’t happen.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: March 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The spacing of the fixtures means that for now we can more or less field the same side for each one. I still rotate to some extent, partly because I can’t help tinkering and of course also to make sure the players don’t feel left out, but at this point I find that Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are increasingly marginalised presences. They’re both team leaders and I don’t want to irritate them, but the fact is we have better choices for their positions now. My hope, I guess, is that both come to realise that the game is up for them and opt for retirement, but players can be bloody minded, especially when their careers are under threat, even more so for club legends who don’t want to accept that the end is nigh. How I treat them will be a matter of some delicacy.

March begins with a trip to Granada, an easier than it looks on paper 3-0 romp during which we are emphatic enough to allow for blown penalty opportunities by Tammy Abraham and Bruno Guimaraes. The former makes up for his gaffe by scoring from open play, a peach of a strike that is his first for us in the league. Ismael Bennacer scores his first also, a shot of pure venom that indicates he has this in the tank as part of a very good first season in Spanish football. Ansu Fati is the third goalscorer, part of a revolutionary campaign where he is quietly racking up the good work and steadily eclipsing Coutinho as first choice on the left wing.

On to Atletico Madrid at home, a fixture for which I select Gerard Pique thanks to the accumulation of Skriniar’s bookings making him suspended at just the wrong moment. This is your moment to shine, Gerry – channel the spirit of Per Mertesacker in the cup final. Elsewhere, Champions League ties are being concluded. Liverpool put six past Porto to advance, while Manchester United squeeze beyond Lazio, courtesy of Bruno Fernandes’s goal. PSG demolish Napoli. Real Madrid rely on penalties to complete an even tie of the titans against Bayern. Lewandowski misses one for the visitors.

All this is far more exciting than the Camp Nou match, one that promises much but instead delivers a 0-0 draw between two teams that cancel each other out. Getting past Jan Oblak is the football equivalent of conquering Mount Everest. It’s very hard. By the end we’re reduced to ten and operating defensively when Tammy Abraham is tackled by Christensen and needs to be removed from the field. We’ve made all our substitutions by this point and can’t do much but lick our wounds. Tammy’s injury is a bad one. It’s a twisted ankle, which is worth about a month in treatment. This is especially bad news as he is now going to be missing for the same length of time as Lionel Messi, the player he was brought in to compensate for. Talking of whom, we could have done with the Little God here badly. Someone who might have brought an element of individual magic, who cares to the extent that he raises his game decisively. What a miss that guy is.

With Chelsea on the horizon, I use the home game against relegation threatened Getafe to make the changes. Umtiti, Pique, Puig, Coutinho and Pedro are all selected. Regular starters like Skriniar and Griezmann get to watch from the bench. They witness, as I do, possibly our most leaden of first halves, one in which the visitors take complete control and go ahead through Carlos Fernandez, a lead they look in no danger of losing. We produce next to nothing. It’s terrible. Needless to say, the crockery starts flying at half-time. Puig is removed for being the baddest of a bad bunch, with my eye on the likes of Coutinho, who’s been rubbish but at least has the excuse that he’s just returned from injury. Not that it washes far with me – mate, you’re paid hundreds of thousands per week, do better! And we do. Pedri scores a brace from the right wing after the break, Coutinho rousing himself from his torpor to provide an assist, as we eventually pull through with a 2-1 win. Hector Bellerin is lost for three weeks after taking a boot to the groin, an awful tackle that does the rounds on YouTube. We could use his abilities at right-back – his loss guts me.

For the trip to Chelsea, we are without Bellerin (groin, three weeks), Messi (hip, three weeks) and Abraham (ankle, two weeks). Sergi Roberto picked up an innocuous training injury ahead of Getafe and is nursed back into the starting line-up for this one. We can at last reintroduce Dembele back into the side, albeit on the subs bench. After this we have Sevilla at the weekend, and then two weeks off for internationals, during which time I hope to have most of my first team (close to) back to full fitness. I wonder if we will be still in the Champions League by this stage.

Understandably, I feel, we play a conservative game in Londinium, all too aware that Barcelona’s past efforts to play open, fluid football in situations that don’t justify it have cost us in the past. Chelsea are good, as good we are really, but we’re capable of cancelling them out. Sergi Roberto plays the game of his life in nullifying the threat of Pulisic, and we play a high line effectively so that when Werner scores in the first half it’s the clearest of offside shouts. After the break, Harrington Kane nets from close range to put us in front. From a break, the home team equalise through Luis Suarez, an exercise in sheer pace as he leaves my defenders for dust before rasping his shot beyond ter Stegen. But 1-1 is a result I would more than accept, and we are safely through. For once, there are no fresh injuries to report, which comes as an additional bonus.

The draw for the Champions League Quarter-Final will pair us with a good team, no matter the number of the ball that drops. We avoid any more English clubs, and will instead face Internazionale, which considering the high standards is about as kind as the lottery could be to us. If we advance beyond them it will be one of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain in the Semi. I’m not sure which of the two I would least like to play. In the other half, Manchester City take on Liverpool, and Lyon will have the considerable task of prevailing against Manchester United.

If ever you have wondered what happened to former Premier League players like Eric Bailly, Luka Milivojevic, James Milner and Willian, then look no further than the Sevilla first team. All four veterans line up against us at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan for our pre-international break clash. The opposition worry me. They’re better than their ninth place suggests, and Real are winning their games right now so we need to remain as clear of them as we can. Harrington Kane does the business here, scoring twice to gift the points in our laps. Yussuf Polusen makes a reply fairly late to make the situation less comfortable, but we do enough to hold them off and claim a 2-1 win.

Not the most confident performance you’ll see from us, and I appreciate that right now I’m using the same players over and over, risking injuries, but we have retained our seven-point lead and that’s what matters. I hope the players get a rest. April looks titanic; nine matches to work through, including Valencia and two games against the white half of Madrid (the scarier half), along with Inter Milan.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: February 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

A month of six fixtures, potentially seven if we make it to the Semi-Final of the Spanish Cup, February features the return of the Champions League, in which we will be taking on Chelsea. Of the league ties, an away day at Athletic Bilbao, who are in fifth place, looks like being the hardest, however we don’t have to play any of Spain’s really big shots again until March, and the aim by that stage is to build on our commanding lead in the division.

We’re away to Lugo in the cup. The second division side, based in Galicia, are newly promoted after being relegated in 2022, and while they take to the field in Atletico Madrid colours that’s where the similarity ends. They aren’t that good, and even with something of a scratch eleven giving Abraham and Grimaldo an early playing opportunity, fielding Puig and transfer-listed Umtiti, we have far too much for them, running out 3-1 winners. The goal against, a marvellous strike from Xabier Dominguez, riles me a little because at Napoli we could shut up shop with ease whereas Barca continually pay the price for their attacking football. I guess that’s the difference. At the San Paolo our default mentality was positive, which made us a bit more conservative and defensively responsible, whereas Barca are like ‘fuck all that’ and just go for it. All the same, a double from Ousmane Dembele and Florentino Luis’s screamer see us safely through. Tammy Abraham misses a penalty in an overall showing that’s less than emphatic. The semi pitches us against Athletic Bilbao. In the other half of the draw, Levante will take on Real Madrid. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see where this is heading.

On our travels again at the weekend, we’re at Girona, who showcase former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani. He’s annoying in the sense that he’s done well everywhere apart from at the Riverside, which maybe says more about us than him, though I couldn’t possibly comment further than that. Stuani’s been deadly in the cup but is yet to hit the back of the net during any of his league appearances, and that proud record continues here. My experiment of fielding Antoine Griezmann on the right (not that brave – he’s a natural here) pays off in style, as a player who struggled for goals up front scores a superb hat-trick, giving Antonio Luna at left-back the sort of game that will produce nightmares. Florentino Luis finds the net again. Of the rest, I’m really impressed with Bennacer, who puts in a powerful performance from central midfield, and Kane’s intelligent hold-up and selfless play in attack really helps us out. Alfredo Ortuno gets a late consolation to finish a 4-1 rout. It’s their solitary shot of the match.

Valencia and Atletico Madrid both lose (to Espanyol and Levante respectively) to increase the gap. Real put two past Sevilla to become our main challengers. They’re a full ten points begin, though their match in hand makes it more like seven.

Athletic Bilbao await in the Spanish Cup Semi-Final, to be played at Real’s Santiago Bernabeu. A healthy crowd of more than 81,000 turn up for this one, welcomed by a storm of hail, which makes playing conditions difficult. I’m anticipating a difficult contest here. The Lions showcase some players I’ve heard of, from difficult to beat keeper Unai Simon, captain and star forward Raul Garcia, and Inaki Williams, a tricky winger who operates on the right. Sure enough, the match is an even affair. Defensively we’re tight where it counts, keeping out the attacking forays by Nicolas Serrano, whilst at the other end Tammy Abraham fires an early effort against the post before finally putting us in front when he converts Dembele’s fine assist. A great moment for a striker who hasn’t scored in his ten appearances before this one. There is a cost to our win. Dembele stubs his toe and will miss the Leganes match. Coutinho’s injury, a pulled calf muscle that he incurs in the first half, pretty much ends his February. Fortunately for us, Pedri – who’s been unavailable for a couple of weeks courtesy of a virus – is available again.

With a sense of inevitability, we will face Real Madrid in the Final. The venue has been pre-selected, but the good news for us is that it will take place at the Camp Nou. For the record, our thirty-one Cup wins make us the competition’s most successful participant, but against Real in the showpiece we pretty much share out the victories. It’ll take place in the middle of April.

At the weekend it’s first against last with the visit of Leganes. They’ve just sacked their manager, Albert Celades, and we are fairly sure that we will get to take on a side that’s in both real trouble and a sense of disarray. With nearly a week after this until our next fixture there’s the possibility that this will allow us to inflict some pain, and that’s just what we do in a 7-0 home win. 88,890 supporters are delighted with an Antoine Griezmann hat-trick, a brace from Harrington Kane and further goals by Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets as we rack up the shots. Leganes have a couple of opportunities to reply, but Juan Munoz has struggled in front of goal for good reasons and makes a mess of his two chances. Puig and Umtiti play for us here. Pedri comes on for the last thirty minutes to improve his match fitness, and the game produces the sort of dream result that I could only hope for.

We’re back at Athletic Bilbao, taking on a side that is sitting pretty in fourth place and taking advantage of a downturn in form by Valencia to ease themselves into a Champions League spot. For all their gifts, we’re a side of match winners and we go on to show it when Milan Skriniar loops his header over Simon from Griezmann’s corner to put us ahead. That’s the only goal of a game that descends into fouling from the visitors. This pays off for them when Dembele comes on for the last half-hour and takes on a crunching challenge by Berenguer. This leaves the winger with a thigh strain and an absence of three weeks. Thanks, Athletic Club. Without the Little God for the foreseeable future, our options on the wings are thinning quickly.

A poll amongst Manchester United fans shows that 70% are in favour if signing Frenkie de Jong. In all honesty, if they want to cough up a big figure for the Dutch midfielder then I will listen to it. I don’t think he has been especially impressive for us, suggesting to me that his future may be back in defensive midfield rather than playing centrally. Elsewhere, the news flashes through that we have signed Ramos! No, don’t worry; Real’s thuggish legend is retiring at the end of the season, and instead we have agreed a £5.5 million deal for San Lorenzo’s 17 year old winger, Ariel Ramos. A consistent and quick performer, the right-sided flanker is absolutely one for the future, but it could be a good one.

Espanyol hold Real Madrid 3-3 in what could turn out to be a crucial result. We are now eleven points clear in La Liga. Chelsea are next for us, the first leg to be played at home in what is tipped to be a cagey, low scoring affair. Key new signings for Frank Lampard’s Premier League set-up, sitting in second place, are left-back Theo Hernandez, Gianluca Mancini in central defence, and strikers Divock Origi and Luis Suarez (not that one), with Franck Kessie offering steel in midfield. A reminder here that we are expected to reach the final. Chelsea are difficult opposition, but then who isn’t by this stage? Elsewhere, there have been wins for Napoli, Bayern and Porto (the latter downing Liverpool 2-0), but all the ties are wide open. I’m genuinely nervous about who we will face if we prevail against the Blues.

As it turns out, the home tie produces a relatively straightforward 3-0 victory. I have to be careful about any triumphalism. Barca are notoriously gash on the road in their continental adventures, so a big win at home is a guarantee of nothing, yet this display encourages me that we may yet meet the board’s requirements for the competition. Harrington Kane separates the teams with the sort of excellent, first half goal that reminds me why we pay him so well. It’s the kind of athletic strike that not many people would even consider attempting, but it completely defies Livakovic and that’s what matters. After the break, Kessie is dismissed for a second yellow and that allows us to grab two more – Pau Torres from a corner kick, and later Kane’s second from the penalty spot. Harrington is an easy match ball winner, yet Griezmann also excels from his new berth on the right wing, and defensively we are rock solid. It’s not often that I can say this.

The month ends with a visit to culinary capital Real San Sebastian. Lodged in mid-table despite promising much more, they’ve sacked Julen Lopetegui and replaced him with Erik ten Hag by the time we arrive. Their new broom, much like Lopetegui, was an international manager previously, finishing his stint in less controversial circumstances when Holland’s 1-0 defeat to Jamaica at the World Cup prompted his resignation. I think we all would, right? Still, he’s a good one and he proves it here when he organises a stiff rearguard defence to hold us to 1-1. In truth it’s a lazy performance from the Barca boys, who suggest that they expect to turn up and be gifted the points, and are punished as a consequence. Martin Zubimendi fires them in front early, a position that remains in place until the second half, when Oyarzabal is red carded for an offence that most people would consider to be worth a yellow only. It’s the fillip we need, as Antoine Griezmann goes on to produce a late equaliser. On the downside, Pedri and Moriba stand out here as especially terrible, both players suggesting that much to learn they still have. Definitely a case of two points dropped within the overall context of regaining the league title.

Still, it doesn’t make so much difference. Our rivals are just as capable of choking, which leaves our commanding lead in La Liga pretty much intact. We’ll be up against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou in March, a critical game that we can afford to draw rather than win, though clearly better than a sharing of the points would be ideal. There’s the return leg against Chelsea to come, along with three further league games.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: January 2023

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The resumption of hostilities starts in Estadio de la Ceramica, home of Villarreal. I remember once managing these, back in an old edition of the game when they were briefly playing outside the top flight (the relegated team contained Cesar Azpilicueta and an aging Robert Pires). They’re LA Liga mainstays otherwise, and at times even challenge for the European spots, though under current manager Michael Laudrup they are hovering indecisively in mid-table.

For our part, we come into this one reeling from the request by Samuel Umtiti that he be transfer-listed – reeling with happiness, that is. Of the four centre-backs in our first team he’s easily the least, and I see it as a moment of weakness that guided me to give him a new contract at the start of our season. And here’s the problem. The onetime French international is valued at £42 million and earns an incredible £300k per week. Finding a new home for him at the sort of price we demand and the salary he expects is going to be a tall order. I can’t envisage a scenario in which we get to recoup his full value, nor where we won’t end up paying a portion of his spends. More likely by far is that he stays on the books for a while longer, unhappy and disgruntled and continuing to be a toll on our resources. It’s nice to dream of finding a replacement, however. I have recalled Ronald Araujo from his loan spell to provide some ballast in this area, even if my suspicion is that he isn’t ready to play anything like a big part at this stage in his career.

In any event, Villarreal present no significant obstacle and are dispatched 4-1. The match stats will reveal that this was a far more even contest than the scoreline suggests, and that Yellow Submariners like Jeremie Frimpong and Samuel Chukwueze have the capacity to cause us problems simply by hurtling at my defence with the ball at their quick moving feet. The key is in both sides’ finishing ability, however. They have a number of shots that they fail to convert, whereas Lionel Messi and Harrington Kane always have goals in them and put us 2-0 up before Daniel Parejo pulls one back via the penalty spot. As the home team tries to find an equaliser in the match’s latter stages, we get to break and substitute Ousmane Dembele punishes them twice.

Our Spanish Cup campaign opens with a visit to Murcia and Lorca FC. A lower league outfit that makes it clear they’re just happy to be here, the smiles are rubbed off their kites by the final whistle. Having produced not a single shot of their own, the home side are staring down the barrel of a 7-0 defeat. Even with a second string eleven we have far too much firepower. Ronald Araujo scores from the penalty spot. Ilaix Moriba and Antoine Griezmann each claim a brace, and there are further strikes for Milan Skriniar and Ousmane Dembele. In a superb and even joyous display of Total Football, Griezmann claims the match ball and revels in performing his loser dance. It’s been a while.

Valladolid are next in the cup. Before that, we have the Derbi barceloni to work through, the title of games between ourselves and Espanyol. The difference between the two teams is a bit like when Manchester United were in their pomp and taking on a pre-Saudi City team, or the Liverpool derby in most years. Espanyol are decent, but they should be no match and at a roaring Camp Nou they are dispatched 3-0. Ansu Fati gives us a first half lead, before later goals from Lionel Messi and Harington Kane’s conversion at the penalty spot add a sheen to the scoreline. I am especially pleased with the work of Luis, Bennacer and de Jong in midfield. They prevent the likes of Sergi Darder and his buddies from making much impression at all, restricting them to a single shot. An all-round, very pleasing professional effort.

We’re away after that to promoted Cadiz. The self-appointed Pirates are occasional participants in the Spanish top flight, getting relegated after a single season in 2020/21 before rocketing straight back up. The impression that they’re a bit too good for the Segunda Division but not quite up to the rigours of the tier above is underlined by our 2-0 victory at Ramon de Carranza. It takes us a while to find a breakthrough here. Cadiz aren’t very good, but they press hard and make life difficult where it counts, knowing enough to throw bodies in the way of our attacking efforts. But such physical play leads to bookings, and once Filip Malbasic has been dismissed for a second yellow, the frustrations of trying to cope with Little God, we take full advantage. His latter challenge is a costly one, handing us a penalty that Lionel Messi takes care of. Later, Milan Skriniar heads beyond Reynet to add the icing.

On to Valladolid, which in my head is a perfectly respectable top flight outfit, but in fact play in the second division. They’re captained by Pepe Reina, still a very fine keeper even at 40 and building towards making his 650th league appearance. Again though, we are expected to progress and we do, scoring from two set-piece Pau Torres headers to clinch it 2-0. This is good news for the defender, who is playing in his comeback match. Our line-up also features Riqui Puig, recalled to Barca after expressing his dissatisfaction with the loan spell he has endured with Basel. He’s played very well, however he sees himself as a central midfielder and doesn’t like that the Swiss have forced him to play in the Number Ten position. I am quite happy to welcome Riqui back to the fold. He’s got a good career ahead of him with us, I feel.

There’s less happening at the Camp Nou in the near future for Ronald Araujo. Restored to the first team, he’s the subject of a £26 million bid from Guangzhou, and he hankers after the move to China, no doubt thinking about the sporting glory as the deal comes with a considerably enhanced salary. Off he goes, having made a pale handful of appearances in Barca colours. Getting rid of Umtiti is proving to be predictably more of a problem. Despite dropping the price tag to £30 million there is simply no interest. Perhaps they’ve all seen the guy play.

With the news that we will be taking on Sporting Gijon (Hee-Hon) in the next round of the cup, we are entertaining relegation-threatened Atletico Pamplona next. After three mid-table La Liga finishes, it’s all starting to go horribly wrong for Jagoba Arrasate, who simply hasn’t been handed the resources to maintain their effort. The result is a fairly decisive 2-0, though it could have been many more as we pepper Ivan Martinez’s goal with shots, Kane hits his penalty wide and Torres as a header somewhat controversially ruled out for offside. Milan Skriniar and Ansu Fati are our scorers, but the match ball belongs firmly to Lionel Messi, who scores a 10.0 rating for a personal performance that hits divine levels of brilliance. Once again, I’m left to wonder what will become of us once he has finished with the game. He’s simply on a different tier to everyone else, and that includes Pamplona’s Martin Braithwaite, the former Barca man who lines up in the opposition ranks and does precisely zip. They can also call on Juan Mata, once a Premier League leading light, now seeing out pre-retirement for the visitors and looking every inch the mid-thirties dotage that he’s currently serving.

We’re off to Seville next to take on Real Hispalis. What appears to be a routine away fixture against mid-table opposition turns out to be a ferocious contest, the home team giving us a hard time as we battle to a 3-2 victory. Their attacking spark is Thiago Almada, signed by manager Didier Deschamps in the summer from Velez and doing to us what Hakan Calhanoglu used to inflict on Napoli back in the Serie A days. The kid’s brilliant, looking up to Messi and aiming to emulate him with an effervescent job of work, supplying the assists for goals from Andrea Petagna (sold to them by me, as Napoli manager) and Juanmi. At this stage we are 2-0 up. Ansu Fati opens the scoring, before Marc Barta is the unfortunate own-goal netter following a messy goalmouth scrambler. Falling to 2-2, I demand more, more and more again, and finally we get it when Fati bags a second for him – and the match winner – with a delightful solo effort. This one’s hard, almost too hot to handle after we have been allowed to whip the division into submission throughout January up to this stage.

Napoli have transfer-listed Alex Grimaldo, after he’s been frozen out by Jose Mourinho. Despite this, things are working out for them – they’re eight points clear in Serie A – but Jose prefers his own summer signing, Philipp Max, and I can sign Alex for the knockdown price of £12.5 million. Now 27, and having put in two terrific seasons of work for me at the San Paolo, this seems like a no-brainer based on his merits alone, and it also provides an answer to the question over what happens to Jordi Alba. One of the club legends who needs to be replaced before too long, Jordi’s decline as a footballer makes him the obvious first to go up against the wall, and the opportunity to replace him with another player who was trained at the Camp Nou is too good to ignore. We aren’t the only interested team. Porto, Milan and Atletico all chance their arms, but I’m hopeful that the chance to return to Barca coupled with the fact Alex loves me will make up his mind in my favour.

The next round of the Spanish Cup is a home game against Sporting Gijon (Hee-Hon). It isn’t a competition that sends Catalans into dreamland – we get less than half-capacity for this one, and that’s a pity as we streak off to a 3-1 win. Riqui Puig gets another opportunity to impress, which he does when he opens our account in the second minute. Ousmane Dembele continues his escalation in my estimations with a brilliant performance and a goal, and Coutinho plays well also, winning the penalty that Gerard Pique fires past the keeper. In the second half, when both teams sense there’s little left to play for, the visitors pull one back via Modibo Sagnan, and that’s it. Another round overcome. Hee-Hon represented the beginning of top flight opposition in this arena, but they were far from our standard and it showed. We will travel to Lugo in the Fifth Round, or the Quarter-Final if you prefer to know just how far we are from getting to the cup showpiece.

January’s schedule finishes with Levante at home. Another 3-1 victory, with Ansu Fati, Milan Skriniar and a Harrington Kane penalty putting us in the clear before Fabien Centonze lashes in an angry consolation. All too easy. We have rained down hell on Aitor Fernandez’s goal, enough for a far more embarrassing scoreline, but this isn’t the game’s real talking point. Instead, it’s an injury to a key player. Before the first half is done, Lionel Messi needs to be removed with what turns out to be a hip injury. This, I’m advised by head physio Juanjo Brau, has the potential to recur so the best option is to pack the Little God off to work with a specialist. This is really bad news. I’m told that we will be robbed of the Argentinian’s services for two months, a significant portion of the season and a disastrous loss, given the 35 year old remains our best player.

One positive, and it’s a slight one, is that a day or two remains in the transfer window for us to bring in a replacement. Not that anyone can realistically take the place of Messi, obviously. I mean, there are very good players out there, but you don’t just lose a talismanic presence and not feel it. Looking through the transfer-listed players, I go for Tammy Abraham, who has been made available by Chelsea. There aren’t vast riches remaining in the budget thanks to my spending in the summer, so we arrange a loan deal for the striker with an optional release clause of £21.5 million. If he works out then that might be a paltry sum to shell out for a quick, hard working forward who has never really hit his stride at Stamford Bridge. The plan therefore becomes to move Antoine Griezmann out to the right wing, alternating him with fellow Frenchie Ousmane Dembele, until the return and convalescence of the Little God.

The table looks bloody brilliant, quite frankly. A string of victories has put us in the clear, and though the teams behind us have games in hand I would far rather be sitting here, having completed the greater number of fixtures and bagged those sweet points. Grimaldo signs for us, dropping the ever-present demands he asserted at Napoli to become a squad rotation player with us, while Jordi Alba moves to Shakhtar on loan for the remainder of the season. This isn’t ideal. Teams were interested in signing him outright, but the player didn’t want to leave and we were left there with too many players registered and needing to free up a slot to accommodate Abraham. In the end, a loan deal that leaves us paying his ruinous £210,000 weekly salary while turning out for someone else was the best I could do. There is no interest whatsoever in Samuel Umtiti, which sounds sadly about right to me.

The window therefore closes with Barca shaping up like this (with ‘trained at the club’ players shaded in blue, and those with Spanish training in green):

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: November/December 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

We have one final game before the extended winter break, which is an away day at Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League. Barca have qualified, so this is the completion of a commitment rather than a burning desire to strut our stuff, but there’s the possibility that we can gain top spot in Group F. It depends on PSG chuffing their tie against Ajax, which would be unusual because they have home advantage and the Dutchmen have been pretty lacking in attack.

As it turns out, the Parisian giants win 2-1 and we struggle to a 2-2 draw, so neither game works out in our favour. For a time, it all seems to be going to plan. Ansu Fati celebrates his new deal by scoring a first half brace, and Ajax equalise in the French capital after Marquinhos’s early goal. Borussia are decent opposition, though, and as Anton Miranchuk and Victor Tsygankov provide two second half goals for the home side I’m left to rue the fact that I fielded Pique and Umtiti in central defence. There’s a clear hierarchy in ability levels among my centre-backs, of which these two are the lesser pair, and it shows. Jordi Alba caps off a pretty poor outing with a damaged foot, which might ruin his chances of playing for Spain in the World Cup. The Germans are decent. Allan Saint-Maximin tortures Alba throughout, though Marcus Thuram on the left gains little traction against Bellerin.

Still, we remain in the competition and that’s what counts. With no football left to manage for a while, I take a moment to assess what I think of my squad. There are a few players here with bona fide legend status and this protects them; the rest are in my thoughts as follows:

There’s a half-chance that I can find a new home for Coutinho. Any deal will likely involve us losing money (he’s valued at £62 million, and we paid a lot more than that to get him – we won’t get it) and paying a portion of his bloated salary, and this is likely to kibosh his chances of moving. I’m happy to see the back of Neto, but as long as Ter-Stegen remains fit then I can wait for now. Antoine Griezmann has been a disappointment, I feel, while Sergi isn’t as good as Bellerin at right-back, neither can he claim to a steady stake to a place in midfield, and I’m starting to regret handing a contract to Samuel Umtiti. He’s okay, but that’s about all he is. We can do better.

Encouraging to me is the performance of some of our on-loan young guns. Here are some highlights:

  • Ilias Akhomach – constant and capable for Sporting Hee-Hon, where he’s busy building into the right-wing option that will one day unseat the Little God. Not that anyone can, but you know…
  • Ronald Araujo – has made a bright start at Levante.
  • Sergino Dest – building his capacity nicely in Serie A with Inter. He will replace Sergi Roberto one day, so no pressure.
  • Emerson – why do we have so many right-backs? He’s at Fenerbahce, ever-present and performing well.
  • Riqui Puig – I have high hopes for this midfielder, who’s been in blistering form with Basel (7.52 average rating in the Swiss league).
  • Jean-Clair Todibo – the long-term successor to Pique is with Sporting Lisbon and a first-team regular. He’s improving at a rapid rate.
  • Francisco Trincao – at Kobenhavn and currently out for a while with knee tendonitis. It’s a shame, as beforehand he had scored four goals in fifteen appearances and played well.
  • Moussa Wague – the main rival to Dest, he’s with Brugge and is playing regularly in the league and in European competition. Currently out with a twisted knee, but looking good.

Barca players participating in the World Cup are:

  • Spain – Hector Bellerin, Sergio Busquets, Ansu Fati, Sergi Roberto, Pau Torres
  • Brazil – Coutinho, Bruno Guimaraes
  • France – Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann
  • Portugal – Florentino Luis
  • England – Harrington Kane
  • Netherlands – Frenkie de Jong
  • Senegal – Moussa Wague
  • USA – Sergino Dest

Of the above, some very illustrious teams, who do you think will still be participating by the time the competition hits the Quarter-Final stage? If your answer is Portugal and the USA, then check out the big brain on you. Spain batter their group before losing 1-0 to Colombia in the Second Round. This also does for the Netherlands, a real force until they collapse to the surprising immovable object that is Jamaica. Ecuador see off England and, in a pair of shock results, Japan beat Brazil 2-1 and USA triumph on penalties over a fractious France side.

By the time we travel to Ferrol to play in the First Round of the Spanish Cup, Florentino Luis’s participation in the World Cup has also come to a halt as Poland see off Portugal, and I can name a full-strength team. The First Knockout Round of the Champions League hands us a draw against Chelsea, the first leg to be played at home. My experience of Barca in Europe is indomitability at home and complete fragility on our travels, so we’ll have to see how it goes. Real Madrid are the only other Spanish side remaining – they have the small challenge of Bayern Munich. Napoli have advanced and will take on Paris Saint-Germain. That’s like a slap across the chops for my old boys, now managed by Jose Mourinho and at the top of Serie A once again.

Racing Club de Ferrol are in the Spanish Second Division Pro A, confusingly the third tier of the league structure. Existing as a team for more than a century, the Green Devils have never participated at our level and should be a good opportunity for my players to regain their match fitness. An easy evening’s work is on the cards. In our lovely pink away shirts, we put three unanswered goals past the home team. Milan Skriniar, Ansu Fati and a superb volley struck from distance by Bruno Guimaraes cause the damage. Ferrol have one shot that sails harmlessly wide of Ter-Stegen’s goal. Jordi Alba goes off injured, a consequence of occasional casual thuggery by the lesser opposition. Luckily for him, it’s nothing worse than a bruise. In the Second Round we’ll be up against Lorca Deportivo.

We now enter a flurry of friendly games before the league calendar resumes. Playing in a mini-tournament at Stade Pierre Mauroy, home of Lille, we face Aberdeen in the Semi-Final and win 3-0, all our goals coming in a second-half blitz after a dissatisfying first. Ousmane Dembele, coming on for Messi, inspires everything that’s good about us, and I will confess to being increasingly impressed with the French winger. His reward is a pulled groin, which will remove him from the Final. This takes place the following evening – our opponents are Sampdoria, old friends from my Serie A days. The Genoese side are no match for us – we win 5-0, generating an xG of 3.05 and barely giving the opposition a sniff. This time, Pau Torres is the victim, emerging with a twisted ankle that will remove him until mid-January.

The loss of Torres makes me think about the relatively thin 23-man squad we have. Another central defender would be useful, ideally one who is out on loan and can be recalled. Ronald Araujo looks about right for this back-up role. A positive showing for Levante wasn’t enough to propel him into Uruguay’s World Cup squad, but he’s making good progress and is improving. Talking of the Qatari tournament, the Final showcases two sides that could normally only dream of making it this far. It’s Ecuador versus Colombia, which produces a 2-0 victory for the latter side, James Rodriguez putting in a star turn as they win their first ever World Cup. As for Ecuador, perhaps they’re a nationality that’s worth scouting…

Our final friendly is against AC Milan in the San Siro. I have mixed memories this place, even if Luis Enrique is fielding an eleven of starters and back-ups, including the wrong Donnarumma brother in goal. By half-time we are a goal to the bad. Erick Pulgar’s penalty has made the difference, and they have largely gone on to dominate the first forty-five. Inspired by Aaron Ramsey, they’re being praised for their good use of golden oldies, which I take as a bit of a dig as we are nothing if not a set of former greats. The second half is all us. Harrington Kane scores a penalty in reply. Pobega is dismissed for a second yellow and we take full advantage, piling on the attacks until inevitably we produce a winner. Florentino Luis beats Donnarumma from a long-distance volley to make the outing worthwhile. It’s only a friendly and the result doesn’t matter, but still the first-half malaise concerns me.

My promise to the board that I would make no changes to the backroom staff has been completed successfully. I can at last begin to add to the four first team coaches that exist currently, and to transform training into less of a joke than it is right now. With ten days remaining until our New Year’s Day match at Villarreal, marking the resumption of La Liga hostilities, I look to recruit.

Inaki Bergara signs to work mainly on defending. With experience at Athletic Bilbao and Everton, the 60 year old was working for Roberto Martinez’s Belgian set-up before agreeing terms with us. Used mostly as a goalkeeping coach previously, I have actually found someone more appropriate for this role and have returned to Napoli to recruit Alessandro Nista. 57 and costing £800,000 to relieve him from his contract at the San Paolo, I credit Alessandro with transforming Alex Meret into a top-class keeper, not to mention his great work with young shot-stoppers. I go to Bilbao and return with Marco Ianni. Once a lower league footballer, he has developed a fantastic reputation for working on attacking play, which is something we could use. Finally, English fitness coach Anthony Colbert signs for us, and all these changes make our backroom staff as a group look fairly healthy:

A nice Christmas present arrives with the preview of this year’s youth intake. The detailed lines can more or less be ignored, but the statement ‘This is a terrific group of players coming through, and has the potential to be a real golden generation for the club’ is an eye-opener. Barca standards are high, so I now expect to see something quite special amongst this lot.

It’s awards time at the close of the calendar year. Lionel Messi is named World Footballer of the Year. It’s his three-thousandth win, another accolade to add to the haul, but he’s beaten Salah and Mbappe to claim it and I think that is pretty fantastic. The Argentinian legend dedicates to award to me, which I can only imagine is because he’s run out of family and friends for his dedications. Still, it reminds me that we won’t have him forever. Finding a long-term replacement for the Little God will not be easy, indeed it’s night on impossible as he’s a once in a generation type of superstar and pretty much irreplaceable. All the same, we’ll have to try.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: October 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Another packed month, which takes in an international break once we have completed the home match against Sevilla. Real, Ajax and PSG all lie in wait this month, with a tightly contested scenario in La Liga and the Champions League group both to be resolved. At the end of October the league calendar takes a break until January, while we all sit back to enjoy the winter World Cup and keeping our fingers crossed that the Barca players taking part in it don’t get too battered and bruised in the desert.

Sevilla first. They’re in lower mid-table, for once not playing in their traditional personal fiefdom of the Europa League and now managed by former Man City and Italy boss, Roberto Mancini. He can call on Ivan Rakitic, who once dominated our midfield before old age took over and he was doled out to play his waning years for Los Nervionenses. As though specifically aiming to put some of our sluggish performances behind us, we end up winning 4-0 in this one. I field Pedri on the left wing, basically because I want to promote one of the more promising Barca kids, and he responds with two goals to crown a shining performance. Sevilla fail to deal with his superb dribbling, and while trying to keep eyes on Messi, Kane, Moriba and de Jong they similarly prove unable to cope when Florentino Luis launches a terrific long shot to beat the keeper, and they then fell Lionel Messi in the area to allow Little God to cap off a good day’s work from the penalty spot.

A brilliant performance, and a good feeling to take into the latest Interlull. Hector Bellerin has played his way back into the Spanish national team. Pedri isn’t selected, and I see it as a personal mission to play him as often as I can to stake his claim. If the youngster’s presence comes at the expense of Coutinho then that’s fine by me. The choice on the left is between two Barca prodigies and the Brazilian, and I know who I want to move forward with.

Spain beats Serbia 3-0 with a side containing five Barca stars – Torres, Bellerin, Sergi, Busquets and Fati – and the board announce that a small stadium expansion is now complete. We can now play host to 104,000 supporters, which will hopefully transform the Camp Nou into an even louder cauldron of noise. The difference between this place and Napoli’s San Paolo is pronounced. It’s never far from full, a massive degree of Catalan loyalty that we are all keen to repay on the pitch.

Not that we get to do so on the other side of the international schedule. We have to complete the single hardest fixture of the calendar, an away day at the Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid. Barca’s record against their bitter rivals over the past two seasons isn’t good. We haven’t won a single game, and while that didn’t matter in 2020/21, last season it was part of an effort that handed the title to the team that plays in white. It’s on me to try and change things, to reclaim the Classico.

Real are now managed by Maurizio Sarri, who guided them to La Liga glory in the summer. Some of their stars have left in that time (Odegaard, Valverde, Locatelli) and of course the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo sits atop everything, but they’ve been busy. Bastoni, Fekir, Wijndal, Brenner and Dalot are all in. They have started the campaign in slightly slower fashion than we have, but they aren’t far behind and my temptation is the measure our progress against theirs. Essentially, stay ahead of them and we won’t be going far wrong.

The first half of the Classico at the Bernabeu looks like living up to its billing. Real take a quick 2-0 lead via Casemiro and Mariano, but we begin to claw our way back and by the break Antoine Griezmann and Milan Skriniar have levelled the game. It’s so finely poised, so tense that I need to walk away from it for a little while before accepting the responsibility of seeing it out. Very early in the second half, we concede a free-kick about thirty yards from our goal, which gives Nabil Fekir the licence to fire in a spectacular effort. Driven to find yet another equaliser, we instead end up conceding a fourth, Vinicius Junior netting from a breezy counter-attack. We lose 4-2.

It’s a disappointing result to take, especially as we have dominated the game and ultimately go down to Real’s superior cutting edge. We are especially bad at the back, a top class defence looking quite amateurish, but the villain for us is Coutinho, who is kept in the pocket of Dalot. Fati does slightly better when he comes on, but my thoughts regarding the Brazilian are beginning to turn to considerations over his exit. Two Barca products – Fati and Pedri – just look more lively for us, so do we really need Philippe, even though the prospect of parting ourselves from his massive value and enormous contract will make him a difficult sell? Is he just an albatross for us? On the upside, Lionel Messi plays really well, yet this just makes me angrier. We are supposed to be moving away from relying on a club legend to make our waves, but he looks like one of the rare players who actually cares about trying to win this match.

At least we have now played all three of our main contenders – the two Madrid clubs and Valencia – away from home in the league now. When next we meet in La Liga it will be at the Camp Nou, presumably a different story for us. A run of matches played in Catalonia will complete our October. We start with a Champions League clash against Ajax, for whom Jasper Cillessen has become an ogre of a keeper, expanding to twice his size whenever we bear down on his goal. We should have the capacity to pummel them and we do, but the result is a vexing 1-0, Lionel Messi netting from a beautiful passing move in which his close playing relationship with Sergi Roberto is an absolute advantage. I guess it takes something special to beat Cillessen, and this is exactly that.

Eibar next, a game against a Basque side that is rooted to the foot of the table. The fact they have remained stubbornly in La Liga since 2014 is to their considerable credit, however it ought to be a scenario of men against boys, and we end up with a 5-0 victory. Pedri scores a couple of early goals to advance his credentials, before Milan Skriniar heads in from a classic set-piece and Bruno Guimaraes bags his first. Edouard Exposito gets himself sent off after that for collecting two yellow cards in quick succession. This wraps up a miserable afternoon for the midfielder, who listens from the changing room as Jordi Alba drives in a spectacular fifth for us. This is what I want to see, a complete performance. Bruno claims the match ball, but I am pleased with the work of Ousmane Dembele, on to give Messi the day off and providing two assists as part of an enterprising outing.

We can guarantee qualification from our Champions League group if we win our next match, however Paris Saint-Germain are the slight obstacle standing in our way. They beat us 1-0 in France and we do exactly the same to them here. Harrington Kane does the honours, a depressingly rare instance of him finding the net (I expected a free-scoring escapade from Day One, quite honestly). Skriniar is impressive in this one. His work leads Haaland to have an evening of absolute anonymity, which is all I could ever ask of him. PSG supply the fouls, earning three bookings as their inability to make an impression here descends into entitled thuggery.

Sporting Gijon (pronounced, I believe, Hee-Hon) are a higher standard of opposition than Eibar, but once again I’m expecting a win here, and I select an attacking side to get just that. Pedri puts in another enterprising job of work, taking less than a minute before putting us a goal ahead. Before the first twenty minutes are up, Torres claims that he’s pushed in the area during a corner kick and we get a penalty, which Harrington Kane duly dispatches. The star man here is Ousmane Dembele. Later in the game, he sets off on a solo run from deep in our half, which only ends when he’s placed his shot beyond the keeper to complete an outing of some potency. For the visitors there’s only pain. They don’t get so much as a shot on our goal, and are effectively hamstrung when attacking midfielder Pelayo Morilla tears his midway through the first half. I get some pelters for the level of squad rotation I do, but here’s why. Field the same players week in, week out, and watch the injury count ratchet up.

It’s a positive end to the first portion of our season, with domestic matters now taking a breather as the World Cup takes over. All we have left is to complete our Champions League group. In the meantime, we are in a three-way tie at the top of the league. Valencia are in the driving seat thanks to their match in hand, and in truth they have been very dominant recently, but we are up there, despite the Classico reverse, and that’s what matters. The five-point buffer between ourselves and Real gives me heart, though I’ll confess it’s a gap that can be worn down with a couple of poor results.

Ansu Fati agrees a fat(i) new contract, which puts the 20 year old within the upper bracket of Barca earners and ends the speculation that he might leave the club. Over my dead body, though you can have Coutinho if you’re desperate.