At first glance coach Gerardo Martino’s debut season in charge at Barca is going like a dream — with the side qualifying from its Champions League group with two games to spare, topping the La Liga standings and having begun strongly in the Copa Del Rey.
But December has not gone well at all for the Catalan club, who without injured talisman Lionel Messi suffered a first defeat of the season in their previous European game at Ajax two weeks ago, and then fell to another surprise reverse in La Liga at Athletic Bilbao days later.
Worse than the scorelines — losses happen from time to time for any team, and Barca had gained plenty of credit with their earlier results in both competitions — was the lackluster performance in both games, when it rarely threatened to score and seemed unsure of its tactical instructions.
This racked up the pressure on Martino, who even when the team was winning through the fall was being criticized in Catalonia for straying too far from the tiki-taka template put in place in recent seasons by Josep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova.
It was particularly noticeable that in Bilbao, with Barcelona searching for a late equalizer, Martino removed first Xavi Hernández and then Andres Iniesta, something which would have seemed unthinkable under previous regimes.
Martino’s reaction that night to media criticism of that performance and substitutions was muddled, and speculation soon spread from Catalonia about Barca’s players being unhappy not just with tactics, but with their physical preparation too. Xavi himself came out last week to assure everyone that he and his teammates were fully behind their coach – citing similarities between the new man and ex-blaugrana boss Guardiola
“Tata, like Guardiola, is a natural leader,” the World Cup winner said. “He is rigid, demanding, he talks very directly and his ideas are very clear. We are very relaxed inside the dressing-room. We believe in what we are doing. The fans pressure us a lot to return to playing the same as we did before, and that is difficult. But from inside we are relaxed, we know we are doing things well.”
While the squad’s senior players were putting across this message of calm, the local media was again reporting more "leaks" — this time from the club itself. Monday’s Spanish sports papers all had news of a planned renewal of Barca’s squad over the next 12 months, with youngsters Christian Tello, Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto all perhaps leaving, along with goalkeeper Victor Valdes and most surprisingly winger Pedro Rodriguez.
Closer analysis of these stories showed they were mostly spin to meet concerns among fans that many of these players are either out of contract next summer or have already made up their mind to leave. Again the feeling was of a team on the slide.
Friday’s 4-1 Copa del Rey victory against semi-professional minnows Cartagena lifted the mood around the camp somewhat. Then photos provided to the local media of a squad barbecue organized by Martino after training on Monday suggested an image of unity was being projected.
The Argentine coach nonetheless claimed at Tuesday’s quite tense pre-Celtic press conference not to be concerned what anyone outside the club felt.
“We did not feel especially under pressure,” he said. “When any team loses two consecutive games the alarm will go off. We played Cartagena knowing where we had come from, and how the last games had gone. When we get more consistency in our game, we will for sure get closer to our best form. We are obliged to improve our performances, for ourselves, so we can fight on all fronts. A group of players and coaches always work for themselves, not the image that they give out. ”
Martino also confirmed that both Xavi and Iniesta were available for Wednesday’s game and said that, with Messi injured and Cesc Fabregas suspended, Neymar would be Barca’s central attacker despite his current poor run in front of goal. The best news for Barca is that Celtic, who lost 3-0 at home to AC Milan last time out, now have no chance of even making the Europa League. Neil Lennon’s side will just be playing for pride.
Barca’s need is greater — and not just in this game. Some stirring performances are required to persuade wavering fans, pundits — and maybe players — that Martino’s side is on the right track.