As Barcelona veer from one failed transfer move to the next in their desperate attempts to reconstruct a squad reeling from the departure of Neymar, they appear underprepared for the new season, which kicks off in intimidating style with Sunday’s Spanish Super Cup first leg against old foes Real Madrid.
In these uncertain times, losing a key player and scrambling around to replace him, facing the supremely confident European and Spanish champions twice in four days is the last thing Barca need.
The Catalans may have had a far better preseason tour of the United States than Madrid, who they beat 3-2 in Miami as well as defeating Juventus and Manchester United, but all the positive feeling has dissipated since Neymar left and the mood as the campaign approaches is clouded by pessimism.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu put on a brave face at a fans’ forum last week by saying the club thought they were in a win-win situation as the Neymar saga was unfolding, insisting they would be in healthy shape thanks to the sudden availability of €222 million.
But their transfer dealings in the days that followed have been embarrassing. All has gone quiet on the proposed move for Inigo Martinez, while the club’s attempts to bring in Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho to fill the void left by Neymar have left them looking like bumbling fools.
And that’s before we even mention the disastrous pursuit of Marco Verratti earlier in the summer and its possible consequences.
The consensus after losing out on the title last season was that Barca needed two or three signings to be able to wrestle the league back from Madrid, above all a quality right-back and a dynamic midfielder — maybe two.
So far, only Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo have arrived, leaving the midfield, which looked in major need of surgery last season, untouched.
First impressions of Semedo, meanwhile, are not exactly glowing and there are many questions about whether Deulofeu has the right attitude to succeed at Barca, even though he was one of the top performers in the 5-0 friendly win over Chapecoense.
Barca’s dithering in the transfer market contrasts with the shrewd business Madrid have done in continuing to snap up the best young talent in Spanish football, pipping the Catalans to the signatures of Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos.
Los Merengues’ dismal preseason was quickly forgotten as they walked all over Manchester United in the Super Cup, and Ernesto Valverde’s biggest task in his first competitive game in charge of Barca is countering this all-powerful Madrid side.
Should the coach persist with the 4-3-3 formation he used for most of preseason, with Deulofeu replacing Neymar, or try and match Madrid in midfield?
Playing the livewire but unpredictable Deulofeu leaves a midfield three with obvious physical weaknesses exposed against a colossal Madrid containing the muscle of Casemiro, slick passing of Toni Kroos, the energy of Mateo Kovacic (Luka Modric is suspended) and the brilliance of Isco.
Bringing in Andre Gomes or the lightweight Denis Suarez will not necessarily solve that problem, and could slow down the team’s play.
Of course, Barca have won their last two encounters with Real and with Lionel Messi still at the peak of his powers, they are not exactly underdogs. Yet there is an inescapable feeling they could do with a little more time to work out what type of team they want to be after the seismic departure of Neymar.
Some have argued that Barca are better off without a player who apparently values individual prizes such as the Ballon d’Or and an increased salary above wining trophies with his team.
Rivaldo, who also had a painful split from Barca although for very different reasons, has suggested the team’s spirit might be better off without Neymar. What nonsense. Neymar was hugely liked in the dressing room and had a brilliant relationship with Messi and Luis Suarez, which the 364 goals the trio scored together in three seasons is testament to.
The way the Brazilian left the Camp Nou, without making any public declaration or hosting a farewell news conference, has angered Xavi Hernandez, which should be little surprise given the former captain’s vision of what type of club Barca should be and what values they should espouse.
But Barca are unquestionably weaker without the Brazilian, who was such a vital part of the club’s present and future. They are still trying to figure out what type of team they want to be now he has gone. And on Sunday night, they may start to realise exactly how much they miss him.