Glory Hunter – Barcelona: September 2022

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

Heading towards the closure of the transfer window, the temptation is to change nothing. We’ve got a good squad, and aside from a residual wish to reduce the average age there’s not very much that needs doing right now. But when I have transfer money it burns a hole in my pocket. There’s more than £60 million remaining. Players are out there. Players who need signing…

Things kick off when Valencia make an offer for Ismael Bennacer. I’ve made no secret of my desire to have the Algerian international under my wing, and the prospect of him going to a hated rival does not please me. So I match their bid, and in the meantime offer Gio Wijnaldum out to anyone who fancies a 31 year old Dutchman with occasional grievances over his earnings. There’s one place that will always take aging pros and that’s Juventus. They produce a £25 million punt, a bit less than the player’s actual value but good enough. Bennacer costs £42.5 million. He’s 24, slightly under-used by AC Milan but with the potential to go far.

I then read that Arsenal are after Bruno Guimaraes, the 24 year old Brazilian playmaker who plies his trade with Lyon. I envisage a dizzying scenario whereby he comes in and Miralem Pjanic leaves. The latter’s all right enough, but he’s 32 and it still strikes me as bizarre that someone in Barca’s past effectively traded Arthur in for him. Bruno will redress that balance. The sticking point is that Lyon won’t allow him to leave until a replacement has been signed, and the sweaty minutes pass as we wait for them to move their backsides, the player forced to wait as the £48.5 million agreed for his sale sits in the outbox. In the end, they sign not one but two midfielders, paying less for both than Bruno’s transfer fee for Djibril Sow, and former Napoli hero Stanislav Lobotka. The deal goes through, and Pjanic leaves for Lazio. He goes for around half his value, £13.75 million, and we need to pay a significant part of his spends until summer 2024 because some bright spark once thought he was worth £275,000 per week.

So what could have been a quiet window becomes anything but. I’m pleased with my signings and ambivalent about the players I’ve lost, which is just how it should be. Elsewhere, Man City pay a staggering £152 million for Real’s Federico Valverde, a ‘we’ve really seen you coming’ of a transfer if ever there was one. Joao Felix is no longer a Spanish league player, going to Liverpool for £97 million. Any departee that makes our rivals a little bit weaker is just fine with me. Martin Odegaard is another significant loss to this nation. He’s now a Manchester United midfielder, as the Premier League flexes its financial muscles.

We are scouting Ajax players hard. I would take all three of Kenneth TaylorNaci Unuvar and Ryan Gravenberch. They’re young, have amazing potential levels, and certainly in Naci’s case could come in as the long-term replacement for Coutinho. The former Liverpool attacker has started pretty well, however, as though begging me not to let him go.

We have been named 7-2 favourites to win the Champions League, an ominous tag if ever there was one. Man City, Real and group rivals PSG are all up there with us, and you can throw in Liverpool, Man United and Bayern while you’re at it. We’ll find out how close we are to earning that tag soon enough, with three group ties taking place across September.

While the international break continues, I seal another deal, a £3.7 million splurge for Malaga full-back Juan Francisco Herrera. At sweet 16, this is very much one for the future, the 4.5 potential star rating making my mind up for me. Help, I’m out of control! I can’t stop spending the club’s money. We had better end up being good because this won’t end well otherwise.

We reach the other side of the Interlull with just one significant injury. Milan Skriniar has picked up a back strain after trying to impress the youngsters during weight training. That’s three weeks without arguably our best defender and with PSG on the horizon. Nice one. Before travelling to France, however, we’re in Madrid to take on Getafe CF. They’ve started the season well and sit in fifth place. Midfielder Nemanja Maksimovic is their one to watch, albeit studded with unhappiness as he’s chasing a new contract while sadly playing for the sort of team that won’t shower him with his ‘deserved’ riches.

Getafe’s success lies in stiff defending and a tendency towards violence. I have had to make to substitutions before half-time, losing de Jong (not serious) and Fati, who’s out for a few days with a twisted knee. Before his departure the winger supplies a delicious cross for Antoine Griezmann’s close range finish. That’s all the scoring we do, and there’s certainly little possibility that the home team will trouble us.

Paris Saint-Germain clearly don’t have enough of a goals threat with Kylian Mbappe because they’ve signed Erling Haaland also. Thomas Tuchel can command considerable riches – Neymar, Icardi, Mahrez, and new signing Koopmeiners, all straining to stop us from leaving our half and causing problems for Aaron Ramsdale in their goal. This is going to be the toughest test of our Champs League run. I’d take a draw. Victory will make me believe that we might just live up to the pundits’ predictions.

It goes badly. On too many occasions the French giants simply threaten to overwhelm us. Pau’s personal battle with Haaland works out well enough. Sergi’s confrontation against Neymar ends with the latter going off injured, a three-month layoff with a hip problem. But we struggle to cope with their fluency, too frequently they break up our attacks and counter us quickly and fluidly, and when Luis Diaz scores from range, something special to beat Ter-Stegen, it’s all we deserve. Bennacer comes away from his debut with credit. Florentino Luis plays with the constancy of a whirling dervish; otherwise it’s worrying.

Back in La Liga at the weekend, and this time we’re off to Alaves in the Basque Country. I remember this lot best from when they contested the UEFA Cup Final against Liverpool some twenty years ago, and took them to a mammoth 4-4 draw before an own-goal in extra time finally killed off their effort. Beyond that, they’re a side that oscillates between the top two divisions. They’ve been back in the first division since gaining promotion in 2016, after a decade of second – and occasionally third – tier football. They aren’t at all bad, albeit there’s a sense of making up the numbers about them and we ought to take them to task at the Mendizorroza. Instead, the afternoon is largely an exercise in frustration. Defensively we’re good. Torres, Pique and Bellerin all come away with credit, neutralising the home side’s attacks. But in midfield Moriba and Guimaraes struggle to make an impact, and Dembele on the right wing shows scant evidence that he’s ready to take over from the Little God. We are good enough to win, however. One moment of magic has Jordi Alba supplying a killer pass that Ansu Fati smashes past Pacheco.

The rest is vexing, and there’s some gratitude from these quarters that the Barca board has placed so few conditions on me. All they demand is that I work within the wage budget (we’re below the threshold by £122,000) and develop players using the youth system, a condition within which I am in accord. No hopes here for the sort of sexy football required by Napoli, which is good as it generally takes me a year to whip the team into the sort of shape that’s made for entertainment. I guess they are happy as long as we win things. Nothing else matters to them.

We’re at home next to Borussia Monchengladbach. It’s tempting to dismiss the Germans because they aren’t Bayern, Dortmund or RB Leipzig, but in truth Wolfgang Schneider is leading them perilously close to Bundesliga glory. In consecutive seasons they have finished fifth, fourth, third and second, and we know what’s next in the trendline. Their key player is the ferociously named and excellently bouffant Hannes Wolf, an Austrian international attacking midfielder who normally operates as a shadow striker behind Victor Tsygankov and Marcus Thuram, two players who I had an eye on whilst at Napoli.

There’s an effort here for us to gain some ground after PSG. The side known colloquially as the Prussians – which I’m grateful for, as I don’t want to have to type ‘Monchengladbach’ again… damn – give us some trouble, but Umtiti, Busquets and the evergreen Gerard Pique deal with everything, and the latter even gets on the scoresheet when he heads Messi’s corner kick past Sommer. The visitors are fielding Allan Saint-Maximin, someone I actively coveted before moving to a club that wouldn’t offer so much as a sneeze in his direction, and they’re right to do so as the former Newcastle winger just runs into trouble against a full-back of Bellerin’s quality. In the meantime we add two more from Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi to come away with a creditable 3-0 win. The Champions League attracts capacity crowds as a matter of course, and I’m happy to have given them something to enjoy.

Another tricky tie in the league where we go away to Valencia. I would rate them as just behind ourselves and Real Madrid in terms of ability, and there’s little wonder that this one finishes in stalemate. It’s a good one though. For once Harrington Kane uses this as a stage to show his quality, scoring a brace to stand out as our best player in the game. But chances for us are few. Despite playing positively our attacking spark is largely snuffed out by Camavinga, Demiral, Azpilicueta and their groovy mates, and for each Kane goal they conjure an equaliser, both scored by Maxi Gomez. They deserve the draw, in fairness. We’re lumpy here, struggling to find any kind of fluency, and Messi in particular is kept quiet, their excellent full-back Jose Gaya making him look like a rapidly aging former great.

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All the same, I’m sanguine about drawing in Mestalla. It’s a difficult place to go and get any kind of result. The Bats have had a board takeover and are now one of Spain’s richest clubs, building to join the best this country has to offer, and their performance here leaves me grateful that the fixture is out of the way and we have left more or less unscathed. The result keeps us at the peak of the league, exactly where we want to be, albeit sharing the points haul with Atletico Madrid. The four at the top is how I expect the table to look at the end, with only the identities of the individual teams in that mini-league to be shuffled. As I see it, staying ahead of Real is the key, and we’re going to the Bernabeu next month in what should be another exercise in pure joy.

September isn’t quite over yet. We still have to go to Ajax in the Champions League, a fixture that results in a disappointing 0-0 tie. We do everything right here, achieving 62% of possession and racking up fourteen shots to their one. Messi makes up for his anonymity in Valencia with a really good display here, reaching into his bulging bag of tricks to try and find a way through, ultimately to no avail. Cillessen is excellent in the home side’s goal, and they’re steadfast at the back, anchored by the experience and guile of Daley Blind.

 

We are making heavy weather of a tough group, rather expectedly. PSG are running away with it right now, amassing three straight victories, and I know we are going to have to make up some ground to qualify. But it doesn’t matter who wins Group F. Simply staying in the competition is what counts, and the Frenchies have to come to Barca still, a revenge match that will be played in late October.

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