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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):