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.

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.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: July/August 2022

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

After completing a meaningless friendly tournament, which we win but knackers Dembele for a week or so, the season opens with just about the most horrible fixture imaginable – Atletico Madrid away. Still managed by Diego Simeone and scoring two second placed finishes in recent seasons, they’re a perpetually competitive outfit that is predicted to finished third behind ourselves and some team that plays in white. There are various things about them that are great, notably the continued presence of Jan Oblak in goal. Almost impossible to beat without reverting to necromancy and finding some arcane magic to find a way through, they can also call upon a team of stars. Nikola Milenkovic and Andreas Christensen have been added to an already stiff defence, though their true strength is in midfield. Atleti line up with a four-man wall across the middle – Lemar, Koke, Saul, Herrera – supporting their front two of Houssem Auoar and Talles Magno.

A tough prospect to overcome then, and in truth I’d be happy enough with a draw, which is exactly what I get. Oblaks’s excellence makes the difference. I’m pleased to see our efforts to rip them apart, Little God in especially electric form as he tries to reach deep into his massive bag of tricks to find a way through. Ultimately he wins a penalty, which is taken by Harrington Kane, surely as reliable a scorer from the spot as you will ever find. Not so. He shoots wide. The honours are shared, and because we dominate the game I leave feeling a little disappointed by that scoreline.

There’s still nearly a hundred million to splash out on players. The presence of such a massive amount of lolly always leaves me uncomfortable. I want to spend it. I need to spend it. And I know where to, when it’s pointed out to me that Hector Bellerin has requested to leave Arsenal. At 27 the right-back is no longer the plucky youngster who seemed ever on the cusp of super-stardom, but he is a Barca old boy and I sense that in drafting him in I will be able to give Dest a loan move and free Sergi up to play in midfield. He doesn’t come cheap. £49.5 million is what the Gunners want and it’s what I pay, but Hector’s an obvious acquisition and the deal is done.

Going out the other door is Juan Miranda, a 22 year old left-back who doesn’t strike me as an obvious star for either the present or future. Atletico want him. They pay £23 million to make him theirs, which leaves me with nearly £69 million left to spend. There may be more activity before the window closes. We have a full 25-man squad, hitting the La Liga limit, but if Dest goes – Inter have made a loan bid – then there is an available space, and the money is sitting there, like a lead weight in the back of my mind. There are no obvious gaps in the squad, but it’s a long season and I am always in the market for a young gun. At the back of my mind is the feeling that I could use a long-term replacement for Coutinho

Before any of that there’s a home game to play against Athletic Bilbao. More than 90,000 souls are in the Camp Nou on a breezy summer evening, a gorgeous climate in which to play football. I’m keen to add three points after the disappointment of Atletico, and we get it via a hat-trick from Lionel Messi. The Little God is in terrific form, making up for the slight anonymity from Kane as we simply blow the visitors away. I’m also happy with the debut from Florentino Luis, who plays a complete game in defensive midfield to announce his ability. 3-0 will do nicely.

Liverpool beat Real Madrid 3-2 in a cracker of a Super Cup. In a bad-tempered confrontation, Martinez’s winner in extra time splits an even contest that is quite thrilling to witness. Despite conceding three, new signing Bastoni stars for Real in defence.

Sergino Dest moves to Inter for the season, and we are away to Leganes. The promoted side are tipped to struggle, so hopefully we can take advantage with a big win. Their one player who really stands out to me is centre-back Kenneth Omeruo, not for any great ability but the fact he was once a Chelsea loanee who did pretty well at Aitor Karanka’s promotion chasing Middlesbrough. Elsewhere, theirs is an incredibly Spanish side, featuring Barca alumnus in defenders Sergi Gomez and Rodrigo Tarin, and full-back Sergi Palencia. It’s 1-0, hardly an advertisement for our silky skills and a stage upon which Fati and Griezmann struggle to make any great impact. As a contest it reminds me of all those narrow victories achieved at Napoli, where a number of players take the day off from trying their best and rely on our superiority to ease us across the line. Which we do. Pau Torres does well on his debut, but it’s in midfield where we’re special. Ilaix Moriba has a busy, ‘look at what I can do’ game, and Frenkie de Jong scores the goal, something out of the ordinary with a spectacular strike wellied from distance.

Back at home to Real San Sebastian, a side that should be a pretty good one but stands aside here within the Nou Camp. I guess it’s the presence of forward Mikel Oyarzabal, someone to fear but who is well shackled by my defenders, and Xherdan Shaqiri playing on their wing. He does nothing. Philippe Coutinho puts us in front early, before Lionel Messi scores from a direct free-kick. A second-half melee ends badly for Mikel Merino, who has the ignominy of tapping the ball over his own goalline to make it 3-0. This is good stuff. Whilst much of our shooting is off-target and doesn’t test Andrade, we’re clinical when we need to be and Real seem happy to pad out their fouls account.

A home game against Granada rounds up the month. Since promotion in 2019 they have settled into lower mid-table and should be meat and drink for a team of our calibre. It’s another 3-0, notable because we prevent the visitors from so much as having a sniff at our goal while racking up enough shots to turn it potentially into a rugby score. Pau Torres scores a brace, both from set pieces, and Philippe Coutinho comes on for Fati and finds the back of the net from Sergi’s cross. We’re so good that Messi’s penalty, sliced wide of goal, doesn’t become a factor, besides which he has turned provider here, supplying both corners for the Torres goals.

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An easy enough start then, one in which we have won four and drawn one, conceding zero goals while scoring ten. Things will get more interesting in September when we face Valencia, newly moneyed and showcasing the likes of Camavinga, Suso, de Roon and this summer’s £63 million acquisition, Merih Demiral, within their ranks. I think they’ll be a challenger. Also, the Champions League starts. We’ve been handed what I consider to be a tough group. AjaxBorussia Monchengladbach, and top seeds Paris Saint-Germain await. At least we avoided Napoli, right?

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: Meet the Boys 2022/23

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

A rundown of the players who will win it all at the Camp Nou, or it will be my head on the block…

Goalkeepers

One of the first things I had to do upon being appointed was give a new deal to Marc-Andre Ter Stegen ( 30, 24 caps), one of the planet’s classiest keepers; the disaffectedness was threatening to become a crisis. Happily, it was something I could resolve quickly. He deserves it, a perfectionist who reminds me of the need for a great number one. Part of my decision was based on the presence of back-up Neto ( 33, 1 cap), who is a long way off being good enough for a team of this calibre. For all that, he’s a decent enough back-up, though over time I hope to swap him out for Inaki Pena ( 23, 0 caps), a young homegrown product who is getting first team experience with the B team. Some bright spark in the past paid £26 million for Neto and offered him a £105,000 per week contract. He’s worth neither.

Right-Backs

An area I didn’t feel the need to touch. Sergi Roberto ( 30, 22 caps) is a one-club man who can operate either here or in central midfield. A brave and hard-working international baller who’s perfect for the short passing game I prefer, he’s been a consistent and reliable club servant since his elevation from Barcelona B. In 2020 Sergino Dest ( 21, 30 caps) was snapped up from Ajax to serve as back-up. A fast and determined operator, he has the potential to become the main man over time. There’s no rush, but it’s good to see him being available for us. Barca have a couple of good prospects who can be elevated to the first team. Moussa Wague ( 23, 37 caps) is on loan at Club Brugge, and Emerson ( 23, 1 cap) is playing his football for Fenerbahce this year.

Left-Backs

Jordi Alba ( 33, 76 caps) is one of the several club relics who harks back to bright times and is now approaching his career’s end. Now beginning to decline, especially in physical areas, I see it as part of my brief to replace waning players like him and it’s for that reason I have brought Marc Cucurella ( 24, 0 caps) back to the Camp Nou. Inserted initially as a squad player but tasked with taking over eventually, he’s a smart and lightning-fast wing-back who believes innately in the club’s ethics. A long way away from readiness for first team football, Dimitris Tzavidas ( 17, 0 caps) is the one to watch for the future. If my dynastic instincts are correct, then by the time Jordi’s contract is up in two years’ time, Marc and Dimi will have the capacity to take over.

Centre-Backs

A new contract for Gerard Pique ( 35, 102 caps), who’s now earning big wages for being here until 2025. At any other club this would be a reckless waste of money, but he’s our captain and a team leader, and in my early days in charge I think moves like this matter. Even at 35 he’s still excellent, a composed and technically excellent Catalan at the heart of defence who by the end will have completed five hundred league games for us. The first choice to start alongside him is Milan Skriniar ( 27, 52 caps), acquired expensively by Koeman and almost the perfect centre-back. Imagine having Robocop play for you, this perfectionist athlete who’ll never stop working.

Next in the ranking is Pau Torres ( 25, 13 caps), my addition to the unit. A current international who seems determined to up his game to Barca levels, he should be competing with us for years to come. The fourth and probably least of the bunch is Samuel Umtiti ( 28, 31 caps), who after some reticence I offered a new deal to as he’s still very good. Reliable, technically gifted and consistent, he’s accepted squad rotation status and due to our high standards will be liable to play the fewest games among the group.

There are several players with high potential who are bubbling under. I’m happy to keep Ronald Araujo ( 23, 1 cap) around. Homegrown and available for loan, though it’s not a problem either if he remains with us, he represents our future, as does Jean-Clair Todibo ( 22, 0 caps), who is spending the year with Sporting Lisbon.

Defensive Midfielders

I didn’t especially want to sell Oriol Busquets. My preferred plan was to offer him out on loan, however the stability of a permanent deal to a club that will give him the amount of football that he wants was the deciding factor. Maybe I’ll look him up for a re-signing one of these days. For now I can call on his older brother Sergio Busquets ( 34, 134 caps), a vastly experienced leftover from the Guardiola era who has seen and won just about every possible competition in the game. By now waning physically, he’s otherwise excellent and I am sanguine about relying on his veteran presence. The job of Florentino Luis ( 22, 6 caps) is to assert himself as the regular starter, and this first season ought to see the handover take place. Described by the coaches as a model citizen and highly reliable, it’s clear he sees this as his big chance for stardom and an opportunity he will grasp with some relish.

Central Midfielders

The best is Frenkie De Jong ( 25, 38 caps), by this stage an advanced playmaker par excellence, a world class star who is one of the best on the planet at the job that he does and is continuing to improve. Other sides want him – they can want. He’s the senior pro to Ilaix Moriba ( 19, 0 caps), the homegrown firebrand who is steadily emerging as a star player for us. Carefully eased into the first team, my brief is to give him more game time and transform him into the star player that he clearly going to end up becoming.

In terms of our deep lying playmakers we can call upon Miralem Pjanic ( 32, 120 caps), who was at one point the subject of a swap deal with Juventus that handed Arthur over to them. Personally I preferred the Brazilian, however Miralem is a vastly experienced midfielder, a superb team player who wholly belongs at this level. He is battling with Georginio Wijnaldum ( 31, 81 caps) for the starting role. A free signing for us in 2021, Gio is a strong, consistent and technically excellent performer who entirely belongs at this level, and best of all is his sheer enthusiasm to take on the biggest of opponents in our colours.

Beyond Sergi Roberto, who’s perfectly comfortable in central midfield, Barca have several young guns who are out on loan and vying for a place. Monchu ( 22, 0 caps) is a deep lying playmaker spending the year with new Serie A side, Monza. Not quite at our level but great at passing and technical facets, this is his opportunity to assert his first team credentials. Or how about Riqui Puig ( 22, 0 caps), playing the season at Basel and looking great creatively. The coaching staff aren’t sure he is at our level, but I think it may be a case of bubbling under and that he will make it. The one to really watch is Gonzalo ( 16, 0 caps), with Segoviana in the Second Division. There are doubts about his willingness to work towards meeting his massive potential, but he has time to get there. Matheus Fernandes ( 24, 0 caps) is a box-to-box midfielder who is beginning to suggest that he will never quite make the grade, while David Timmer ( 16, 0 caps) and Joan ( 15, 0 caps) represent the brighter of distant hot prospects.

Attacking Midfielders – Right

Barca are blessed here to the extent that I saw little future in the side for Adnan Januzaj and sold him off. Currently it’s the domain of Lionel Messi ( 35, 152 caps), the GOAT and Barca legend who remains a considerable jewel in our crown. Signing a year’s extension to his contract and sticking around until 2024, his abilities remain dizzyingly high even if his physical attributes aren’t what they once were. He holds off Ousmane Dembele ( 25, 35 caps), at one point a staggeringly high £98 million signing and still struggling to justify the price-tag. He has everything he needs to achieve greatness, though his injury record (eleven knocks in two years) suggests there’s a fundamental lack of reliability in his capacity to start match after match.

Sitting neatly behind is Pedri ( 19, 2 caps), off the production line of fantastic homegrown kids and able to play in various positions across midfield. Highly prized and improving quickly, it’s his ability to do the unexpected that makes him such an exciting player for the future. Of the loanees Ilias Akhomach ( 18, 0 caps) might be the best and will hone his talents this year with Gijon. Both Alex Collado ( 23, 0 caps) and Francisco Trincao ( 22, 0 caps), on loan with Levante and Kobenhavn respectively, might never quite make the grade. It’s a staggeringly high one.

Attacking Midfielders – Left

It’s a toss-up here between the experience and reputation of Coutinho ( 30, 91 caps) and the sheer potential and emerging brilliance of Ansu Fati ( 19, 21 caps). It’s a privilege of a problem to have, one being among the great prospects of world football and the other at one point breaking the transfer record, a £137 million acquisition from Liverpool who Koeman transformed into a key player for the team. The clear path is for Ansu to wrest the position over time, but for now it’s a nice problem to have.

Gavi ( 18, 0 caps) is the best of the prospects, an inverted winger who isn’t far from first team level but could use a year’s loan, playing plenty of football, to get himself into position.

Strikers

There’s a tendency at this club to make a statement signing every year. In 2021, Koeman’s pick was Sir Harrington Kane ( 29, 68 caps), bought from Spurs for £83 million. A lifelong Tottenham kid, Harry repaid Barca with an excellent 2021/22 and is surely one of the world’s great centre-forwards. In pre-season, he scores a goal from such an acute angle that I am just as convinced by his sheer virtuosity, as though there were any doubts. He just about holds off Antoine Griezmann ( 31, 100 caps), though in truth the pair are entirely interchangeable and the latter an equally potent presence on the wings. A £108 million signing in 2019, the Frenchman will be a big star for us because how can he not be?

The classic Tiki Taka philosophy of Pep Guardiola, which asserts you don’t actually need strikers, leads to a dearth of potential in this area, however you should watch out for Arni Sorensen ( 17, 4 caps) and Fabian Luzzi ( 18, 0 caps), both working hard in the Under-19s to push themselves to the dizzyingly high standards that Barca demands.

Glory Hunter – Welcome to Barcelona: Summer 2022

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

Like that, I’m whisked from adulation in Naples to shrugs and general nonplussed attitudes in Barcelona. My wage jumps to £155,000 per week. With this I can afford a seven-bedroom mansion in Vilanova i la Geltru, built in 1912 and once the summer home of the Bishop of Barcelona. Nice.

The first thing to do is check out the squad. It’s very good, indeed it’s a clear jump from what I’m used to. Whilst at Naples I pondered who to alternate with Victor Osimhen, here I get to choose between Harrington Kane and Antoine Griezmann, a nice headache for any manager to have. Footballing legends like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong pass me on the corridor. Topping off the lot is of course Lionel Messi, the Little God himself, by now 34 and still spreading his divine presence around the Camp Nou.

It’s tempting to believe that there isn’t a thing I need to do to improve this lot, which of course isn’t true at all. Overall the standard is very high; still, I start spotting gaps, notably at left-back, where they still rely on an aging Jordi Alba. He has something to contribute, but it’s for sure that the abilities have waned over the years. Pique, Busquets and even the Little God are all entering their twilight years as top drawer international superstars. And that, I find, is the job here, nothing less than overseeing the transition from a team that still relies on its former deities. It’ll take some doing. You don’t easily replace these guys.

Barca finished in third place in 2021/22. Real Madrid were champions on 102 points, dropping 14 across the entire season and putting a huge distance between them and us. We actually won the title the year before while gaining fewer points, but the white half of Madrid roused themselves into action this time around, and for good measure added the Europa League along the way. Thanks Maurizio Sarri, replacing Zidane and smoking his way to instant success at the Bernabeu. In the Champions League, Porto saw us off in the first knockout round. A sorry second half to the considerable success we produced in 2020/21. It did for Ronald Koeman, and opened the door to your writer.

It’s late June. I’m trying to recruit a team of new coaches because Koeman left me with three to work with the first team, though soon enough I learn that a promise I rashly made in my job interview was to change nothing in the backroom staff. This holds until late December, meaning the first team runs with a tiny coaching team for now. The only change I can make for now is to promote youth coach Ivan Cuadrado.

The Barca transfer budget is a staggering £160 million. There’s nearly five hundred grand left to spend on wages each week – the overall amount is six million, essentially doubling what I had to blow at Napoli. There’s a very nice number of homegrown players in the first team. Prodigious teenagers grown from within like Ansu Fati, Ilaix Moriba, Pedri and Ilias Akhomach rub shoulders with the giants, players they all look up to. There are more ploughing away at Barcelona B, a young midfielder like Nico who at most clubs would already be a first team regular. It’s a daunting place at which to work. Talent is everywhere. I need to make sense of this.

Barca expects. They want their league title back, and a final placing in next season’s Champions League would be nice as well. The board aren’t bothered about domestic cup competitions, which shows just where their focus is, but of course I am. Glory Hunter cannot progress without claiming the Spanish Cup along the way, though I can see myself staying here for a little while. There’s something dizzying about taming the beast that is FC Barcelona. The resources available are incredible, and the ever-present challenge from the two Madrid clubs is something to work against.

A number of contracts are up in 2023. These include legends like Busquets and Messi, also Umtiti and Junior Firpo. Gerard Pique demands a new deal, and even at 35 I think it’s worth offering him one. His new deal includes wresting the captaincy from Little God, a change I would probably want to affect anyway so this is a nice, underhand way of resolving it. Georginio Wijnaldum is also hankering after improved terms; I tell him to do one and he accepts that! Everyone is offered an extension apart from Firpo, the left-back who I frankly don’t think is good enough to remain here. He’ll be offered out instead.

The Brazilian ends up leaving, going to Lazio for a fee of £10 million. I want to replace him with an up and coming star to steadily take the left-back spot permanently from Alba. My choice is Marc Cucurella, who grew up here before Koeman sold him to Getafe. We sign him for £32 million, which is more than we got for him when he left but money isn’t really an object at the Camp Nou and my sense is that Marc belongs with us.

Centre-back is another area of comparative weakness. There is one really good player – Milan Skriniar, a signing from Inter last summer, and in Pique we have an aging legend, plus Samuel Umtiti. Below them are young guns who I don’t see as being perfectly ready for the grit of first team football. Jean-Clair Todibo is the best, a 22 year old Frenchman who is close but not there yet and could use a season on loan. Ronald Araujo is a decent Uruguayan prospect, also made available on loan but I’m just happy if he stays as ballast. We need a fourth good one. I go for Pau Torres, the 25 year old Spanish international at Villarreal. He’s someone I lusted after at Napoli. He wasn’t affordable then, but he is now. £57 million is the fee for his services.

In defensive midfield, Barca showcase the two Busquets brothers. Sergio is approaching the back-end of an illustrious career. Oriol is wanted by Lazio, who offers £25 million for him. In my view, I’d rather loan him out, but the Romans are prepared to give him first team regularity, which I never would, so that seals his exit. I go for Florentino Luis as the long-term pick. The Benfica man has a minimum fee release clause of £50 million, and at 22 can operate at the top level for a long time. The deal is done, completed easily because people want to play for us.

The other first teamer I sell off is Adnan Januzaj. Barca already have some bloke called Lionel Messi who operates perfectly from the right wing, with Ousmane Dembele an ideal alternative choice, and Pedri and Akhomach serving as our youthful options. Januzaj, now a long way from the rabbit in the headlights bairn he was under David Moyes’s brief, unhappy stint at Manchester United, was brought in by Koeman in 2021 and barely used. He paid £38 million for the Belgian. We recoup two million less than that in moving him on to Juventus.

Pre-season is a string of bulldozer showings. Ajax, Roma, Basaksehir and Leixoes are all dispatched at an aggregate score of 14-1, and then the league calendar looms. We start at the end of July with one of the toughest tests I’ll face – an away day at Atletico Madrid – before the calendar begins in earnest. You’ll recall that this is the season that will take two months off in the middle for the winter World Cup. Either side of that is a schedule that runs to the very end of May.

Unless something dramatic happens in the month between now and the end of the transfer window, like for instance I make the bizarre decision to rescue Cristiano Ronaldo from his hell in free agency (Juve released him), the squad will not change much from where it stands presently. It looks like this – homegrown (trained in Spain) players are shaded green; homegrown (trained at club) in blue:

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Summer 2022

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

Neapolitans entering the final years of their contracts are Koulibaly, Asenjo and De Sciglio. The veteran keeper pretty much accepts the same terms again for another season. De Sciglio demands enough to put me off from offering him anything, and Kouli is still cross with me after I accepted a Manchester United bid for him last summer. It was a lot of money, in truth, however I’m sure this will all be ironed out once he simmers down, given that his love of the club is so fervent that the incident has put him in a year long sulk.

The gap between the wages that we currently pay and the budget ceiling is nearly engulfed as a string of players demand new deals. Their demands are actually fair enough, I feel, even though sorting out the contracts means we have more people on six-figure weekly salaries and, in Fabian’s case, we are splashing out £170,000 per week for his services. That’s the price of stardom for you. The trouble is that it was a case of doing this or probably losing the guy to Liverpool, and nobody wanted that. Eric Garcia’s freshly signed £120,000 weekly spends removes the £40 million release clause from his contract, and that’s important for someone who emerged as a first team player. The two main men in central defence (Kouli and Manolas) are both in their fourth decade now. Garcia is 21. He’s the future and they are not.

I’ve identified centre-forward and left-back as my priority positions to fill, beyond the usual wishlist of picking up good players wherever they emerge. I struggle to find anyone to back up Grimaldo who isn’t going to cost a pretty penny. My underhand scheme is to bring Luca Pellegrini back in for another season on loan, hope that Juve forget that he’s in his last season with them and snap him up for free in 2023. It’s a gamble, but it might just work. High quality players for the role who are prepared to rotate just aren’t lying around right now. This one could run and run.

As for strikers, I am determined not to get it wrong again. The lacklustre performances of Schik and Edouard show just how easy it is to think you’re getting a strike of capability, until to find they are faint of heart when it really matters on the field. Added to that, forwards are often expensive and it’s criminally easy to mess up while having lashed a lot of the club’s money on your mistake.

Alongside three Brazilians, I am as ever following the fortunes of Sebastiano Esposito closely. Winning six of the nine possible Under-19 Player of the Month awards in Serie A this season, scoring nineteen goals in thirty-three appearances for Sampdoria overall, it’s clear enough that he’s a complete forward of real quality, and that this very high level of talent and potential possibly makes his mother team, Internazionale, unwilling to entertain any permanent offers. So it might be one of the three Brazilians, players I’m a little reticent about as Esposito is no stranger to Serie A and they are. In any event, those Samba superstars:

  • Pedro (Flamengo) – 25 year old who has forced his way into the Brazil national side and now finds himself wanted by Chelsea and Manchester City. While the asking price could be as little as £17 million, his agent informs me that Pedro would require Napoli’s squad to be improved significantly before he would even consider signing for us. Bloody cheek.
  • Brenner (Sao Paulo) – he’s broken into their first team at 22, scoring eighteen from twenty-seven appearances and he’s now on the shopping list of various outfits. He’s gettable, but the striker’s perception of himself could put him in direct opposition with Osimhen over who is the preferred first choice. I’m not certain that he’s worth the hassle.
  • Marcos Leonardo (Santos) – the teenage option, a tender 19 who’s attracting longing looks from Manchester United and Atletico Madrid. The youngster has simply been a goal-scoring phenomenon at Santos and I am advised to sign him at any price. This, incidentally, is around the £15 million mark, so he’s affordable, but again he expects to treat the San Paolo as a stepping stone, a showcase for his talents, and that makes him a risk.

Questions, questions, ones that will need answers. In the meantime, Empoli accept a request from Samuele Ricci to go on the transfer list. They haven’t achieved promotion, and so the 20 year old midfielder – one of Italy’s most exciting young talents – wants to go elsewhere. The deep lying playmaker is definitely one for the future, but what a future, and we can get him for £7.5 million, which seems like a reasonable price for someone who should develop into a top player for club and country. The scouts identify 17 year old Bruno Coutinho, currently with Braga, as a great prospect. A ball playing defender who is yet to make a first team appearance, it’s his bravery along with high physical levels that are qualities upon which to build. £1.2 million will do the trick, a tiny gamble for a possible future star.

Tottenham’s attentions on Eljif Elmas convert into actual cash money offers. I knock them up to £53 million before accepting. It will mean seeing off a good and very promising midfielder, but losing him should allow me to go after someone I really want – Milan’s Ismael Bennacer, available it seems for about half the Elmas bid. Bennacer, an Algerian international who has been used sparingly at the San Siro, ticks all the boxes, not least his complete knowledge of Serie A, and selling Elmas is the route to bringing him in.

I believe that my efforts to sell Hirving Lozano are a non-starter until Lazio, still without a manager, show up with a straight £40 million offer. Thanks, we’ll take it! Again, I have someone in mind. The player I would like to replace him is Allan Saint-Maximin, part of the Newcastle side that’s just been relegated. ASM looks like a match winner, and I think he will fit really well within the Napoli set-up. The chance of a fresh start in a different country ought to be really appetising to him.

So that’s where we’re at currently, in the middle of June as the players are on their holidays. Then I get the call from the Nou Camp. They want to interview me for the Barcelona job. I agree to all the things they demand, mainly not wanting anything to be done by the board nor replacing the Director of Football, and then I’m offered the post of manager. At Barcelona. And without further ado I’m off to work at one of the world’s biggest and most impressive set-ups.

Glory Hunter – Napoli 2021/22: The Squad

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

A review of the boys who entertained you through another exciting and ultimately successful season…

1. Alex Meret
Age – Nationality: 25 –  (1 cap)
Current Value: £43 million (£14.25m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 54 (0) – 37
Average Rating: 7.09
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Should be considered a leading Serie A player
By now, Alex is undisputed wielder of Napoli’s goalkeeping gloves, performing above average in every key area (especially in the paltry number of goals – 17 – he conceded in all competitions). Happy at the San Paolo and in love with me (it’ll never work out), Alex is being offered a new contract to keep him in my favour. Another good year’s work.

2. Giovanni Di Lorenzo
Age – Nationality: 28 – (22 caps)
Current Value: £45 million (£26.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Right Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 40 (0) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good timing in the challenge
A high level and consistent season, the injury breaks of 2020/21 seemingly a thing of the past as Gio raised his level to that of being a regular fixture for club and country, and earned a new contract in the process. He enjoys a big match, is still improving as a player, and while his attacking work wasn’t as emphatic as it had been he made up for it with consummate performances at the back. Gio was at his best when up against star players on his flank, notably Cristiano Ronaldo, who he neutralised on each occasion they opposed each other.

3. Alex Grimaldo
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £34 million (£19m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left-sided Complete Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (1) – 0 – 7
Average Rating: 7.21
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Very technical
Any doubts I reserved over Alex evaporated this season, as he remained fit, played often and became much better in his providing of assists. He claimed four match balls to underline his importance to the cause, and he seems to grow in authority by the game. By now a clear first choice in his position, the harder job may be to hold on to him with the likes of Milan sniffing around, though why he would want to leave is anyone’s guess.

4. Kostas Manolas
Age – Nationality: 30 – (58 caps)
Current Value: £44.5 million (£27m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (0) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 7.17
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a physical player
It’s no black mark against Kostas that the Garcia impact wrested him from an obvious starter’s place. The Greek international had another good season, and the arrival from Man City allowed me to rotate the pair with Koulibaly to keep all three fit and raring to go. Kostas was at his very best in January, when we were short of players and his regular partnership with Garcia maintained our gnat’s chuff tightness at the back. A steady, reliable and consistent performer.

5. Eric Garcia
Age – Nationality: 21 – (5 caps)
Current Value: £52 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 41 (2) – 5 – 2
Average Rating: 7.19
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Anticipates situations well
This season’s revelation. You never know what you’re going to get from a free signing, do you, and yet Eric turned out to be worth every bit of faith that we showed in him, playing very often and somewhat effortlessly muscling in to break up the Koulibaly-Manolas partnership at the back. A resolute and smart defender, his excellent work has propelled him into the Spanish national side and landed him with a new contract as his release clause was worth less than his current value. I think he could be good for us for many years to come.

6. Kalidou Koulibaly
Age – Nationality: 30 – (64 caps)
Current Value: £47 million (£46m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (0) – 4 – 0
Average Rating: 7.15
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Strong player
Manchester United made a strong offer for Kalidou last summer. I accepted it, only for him to turn down the move and spend the time since then resenting me for trying to sell him. Ideally I want his disaffectedness to end (another ninety days apparently) and for him to sign a new contract as he is entering the final year of his current one. I think it will all end well. The Senegalese remains exactly what he was, which is a defensive titan, also the team captain, and emblematic of what we have achieved together here.

7. Eljif Elmas
Age – Nationality: 22 – (38 caps)
Current Value: £53 million (£14.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (10) – 6 – 5
Average Rating: 7.11
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to dribble makes him a difficult player to come up against
Very much an improved job of work for a player about whom I admit I had my doubts in 2020/21. He became exactly what I hoped he would, which was to be crucial in midfield, producing an excellent personal xG/90 level and enhancing his value both to us and in terms of what he would fetch on the market. He’s wanted by Tottenham, who I should expect to meet at least what he’s worth on the market. He won’t be easily replaced, and I couldn’t always say that.

8. Fabian
Age – Nationality: 26 – (25 caps)
Current Value: £61 million (£48.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (8) – 1 – 4
Average Rating: 6.93
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Passing ability underlines his technical prowess
What on first glance seems to be a fairly average season needs to be placed within the context that Fabian played in all of our more difficult matches. Invariably picked away from home, in the Champions League and against the best Serie A has to offer, he was very good and his overall value improved markedly. In the Liverpool games he was the most imperious Napoli presence, sparking everything that was good about us, and it’s probably this that has made him a target for Jurgen Klopp. He’s now mithering about a new contract, which will no doubt pay him at the elite level he’s attained.

9. Victor Osimhen
Age – Nationality: 23 – (29 caps)
Current Value: £52 million (£23.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (1) – 19 – 4
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has explosive pace
I’m still smarting about the outlandish amount of money we paid for Vic. Thanks to various add-ons and bonuses the fee has now risen to £68 million, and I don’t think we are done with coughing up yet as various treats are still to be activated. It’s a ruinous fee, and Vic just hasn’t been worth the outlay… That said, he had a 2021/22 that was broadly in line with his first season here, which makes for a solid couple of years’ work overall, and it doesn’t seem to matter which forward we bring in to challenge him, he always comes out on top. That speaks volumes.

11. Hirving Lozano
Age – Nationality: 26 – (62 caps)
Current Value: £47 million (£21m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left/Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 12 (14) – 9 – 0
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Lack of any real strength hinders his physical presence
A season of two halves. Before his torn hamstring injury in December, Hirving was firing on all cylinders for club and country. Upon his return, all his powers appeared to have been wrested away. A ghost of the player he once was, there’s too much competition for places and other players out there who I like the look of, and my temptation is to sell him, especially as we could do so for a lot of money. Paying someone £120k per week for bobbins isn’t my idea of good value.

12. Armando Izzo
Age – Nationality: 30 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £23 million (£17.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 4 (1) – 2 – 0
Average Rating: 7.43
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has declined slightly
The impact made by Garcia put paid to much of what Armando could do. Our three main centre-backs all remained fit, and our back-up could do little but sit on the bench. That said, when he did get on to the field he didn’t do a lot wrong, and two goals in his five appearances is an excellent return. His status as a homegrown player, coupled with his relative happiness, makes him protected and more or less unsellable.

13. Luca Pellegrini
Age – Nationality: 23 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £7 million
Homegrown status: Trained in Nation
Position: Full-Back (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (1) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.13
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Drafted in as a loanee from Juventus, Luca took his chances and did well with them, a technical player who could produce some levels of magic on the ball, measured by high aggression levels that earned him ten bookings. He’d love to move here permanently, however his club aren’t interested in selling him to a rival, which seems fair.

14. Odsonne Edouard
Age – Nationality: 24 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £18.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 6 (12) – 4 – 0
Average Rating: 6.72
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A peripheral figure in the squad
Before we brought in Patrik Schick Odsonne was a player I looked at to the extent of making an offer. I was put off by the high number of demands he made, and he ended up going to Borussia Dortmund instead. Barely getting to play (he was up against Haaland, in fairness), he was transfer-listed and I made the decision to draft him in on loan in January. Suffice it to say I’m happy to give him back, on paper a consistent and big game performer who rarely raised his game above the moribund. This was his chance – opportunity blown.

15. Riccardo Orsolini
Age – Nationality: 25 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £47.5 million (£13.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 28 (14) – 11 – 9
Average Rating: 7.24
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The player has been in a rich vein of form of late
Everyone likes a maverick. Ricci isn’t the best team player; his liking is to collect the ball and try to produce something of solo wonder, which led to as many moments of ridicule as magic. More of the latter in recent times though, as this unpredictable and exciting winger grows in confidence and stature within the set-up. I like him a lot. He’s a brilliant dribbler, and his high determination levels have made a winner of him.

16. Nikita Contini
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £2.1 million (£1.2m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: N/A
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Leading player for most Serie C sides
Time to call it a day here. Nikita drew another blank, decent enough in non-competitive matches but far behind both Meret and Asenjo and the only reason he’s still around is to pad out the homegrown numbers. There’s no reason to keep him on the books any longer.

17. Stanislav Lobotka
Age – Nationality: 27 – (40 caps)
Current Value: £42 million (£12.25m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 19 (8) – 2 – 1
Average Rating: 6.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is adept at using either foot
Stan converted to defensive midfield in the summer, alternating with Tonali and never letting us down in his new role. By the end he has commanded a more enhanced place in the side and will be awarded a new contract. A good year from a consistent performer.

18. Matteo Politano
Age – Nationality: 28 – (26 caps)
Current Value: £41.5 million (£35.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (11) – 6 – 15
Average Rating: 7.31
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
More good work from Matteo, one of the side’s most reliable and productive players, a true team player with a bagful of assists to his name. The fans really like him, particularly his crossing ability, his great effort to be found in space, and his work on corner kicks. The battle between him and Orsolini for the right wing continues to be a good-natured and fascinating battle of wills.

19. Jeremie Boga
Age – Nationality: 25 – (20 caps)
Current Value: £32 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 8 (13) – 2 – 5
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly poor intelligence on the football pitch
A force of nature to rival Orsolini, Jeremie was drafted in to provide quality at back-up and has probably asserted himself by now as the legitimate alternative to Insigne on the left. Wholly capable of misplacing a pass, then running back to regain control before setting off on a mazy dribble that ends in a shot, there are sure contradictions in his game, however his sheer flair and agility, coupled with dazzling pace, makes him a threat, albeit of the ‘headless chicken’ variety on occasion. On the whole, a promising start to his Napoli career.

20. Piotr Zielinski
Age – Nationality: 28 – (74 caps)
Current Value: £58 million (£29.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 32 (11) – 3 – 11
Average Rating: 7.00
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a creative player
A very good season from Piotr, who took the threat to his place from Castrovilli positively by upping his game from central midfield. Capable, sadly not all the time, of controlling matches, and able to put in some fine killer passes, the Pole is a leading Serie A player who is starting to wonder whether he should move to a bigger club. Mate, there is no bigger club. This is the place for you.

21. Gaetano Castrovilli
Age – Nationality: 25 – (8 caps)
Current Value: £38 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker/Mezzala
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (22) – 4 – 6
Average Rating: 6.94
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has improved as a footballer over the last two months
Signed from Fiorentina to enhance our options in central midfield, Gaetano had little difficulty in raising his performance levels to the bigger side for which he was now playing and impressed us with his creativity. Performing above average and providing a genuine alternative to Zielinski, it was actually pairing them in the side that turned us into a killer, driving force, the Italian using his superior vision to pick out teammates and move into space. He’s an exciting player for us, and I look forward to seeing his development.

22. Sandro Tonali
Age – Nationality: 22 – (9 caps)
Current Value: £40 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (3) – 2 – 3
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays a fairly determined attitude
Sandro arrived with big shoes to fill, having to take over in defensive midfield from Bakayoko and Demme. This he did, with some aplomb. His performance levels dropped towards the business end of the season, but overall he produced good work throughout and was a clear first choice for his most pivotal of roles. His physical play was of an especially high standard, and he never stopped working. An international footballer who’s wanted by Manchester City, it’s a priority of ours that we keep him.

23. Sebastiano Luperto
Age – Nationality: 25 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £9 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 21 (0) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.69
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player who could still improve
Seb has spent the second half of the campaign on loan at Bordeaux. He needs the playing time, and he’s got it, but I don’t think he has done especially well and the temptation is to quietly shuffle him out. That said, we will await his return and then assess him further. By all accounts, the promise of future capability is there.

24. Lorenzo Insigne
Age – Nationality: 30 – (55 caps)
Current Value: £50 million (£42m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/False Nine
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (7) – 13 – 11
Average Rating: 7.29
Key Coaching Comment: ‘First touch is key to him being a technical player
There are moments when we have threatened to be the showcase for Insigne’s talents, which sort of works because he’s central to the cause, one he would bleed for, given the need. It’s testament to the improving levels elsewhere that he gets to be what he is, which is a leading attacking force, performing consistently well and still working to improve his game at a time when many players would consider themselves to have hit their peak. The guy cares, that’s for sure, and we are the better for him.

25. Mattia De Sciglio
Age – Nationality: 29 – (39 caps)
Current Value: £17.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Full-Back (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.30
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Current role model for younger players
Almost the perfect back-up player, Mattia was signed cheaply from Juventus and went on to perform well whenever he was required to give Di Lorenzo a break at right-back. Despite his lack of creativity, he did well defensively – all positive points for a fringe player acquired for £3.2 million. The sticking point is that his contract finishes in summer 2023. Mattia wants a big pay rise and to be considered a regular starter; I’m prepared to meet neither condition, so perhaps we will need to revisit this role again in a year’s time.

26. Sergio Asenjo
Age – Nationality: 32 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £5.25 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 1 – 1
Average Rating: 7.10
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player in his prime years
I meant to use Sergio more often, however Meret’s sustained fitness and his exploits made the Spaniard a complete bit-part option who nevertheless seemed reliable as an aging back-up. He signed a one-year deal initially and has quickly agreed to a further season with us. He’s happy to belong. I’m pleased to have an experienced alternative.

27. Gabriel Martinelli
Age – Nationality: 20 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £23.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 3 (6) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 7.01
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Exciting young prospect who isn’t far from first team level
Brought in on loan from Arsenal in January, while Lozano was injured, Boga was playing in the Africa Cup and Insigne was struggling with fitness. There was never any great prospect of Gabriel playing regularly, and he didn’t, though to give him his due the flexible Brazilian forced his way back into the side, emerging as a more potent forward than Edouard and preferred to Lozano on the left. That says as much for those players as it does him. Even so, three goals in nine appearances isn’t to be sniffed at, and while Arsenal’s price-tag of anything up to £89 million makes him an obvious short-term option only, we’ve definitely got something from his stay.