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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.