Question marks over Barcelona ahead of new season
By Rik Sharma
REUTERS - Barcelona head into the new season surrounded by question marks, with a new coach arriving and one third of their formidable attacking trident having departed. For
New coach Ernesto Valverde knew life at the club would be stressful, having seen two of his predecessors, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, leave the job on account of it taking a heavy toll on them.
However, the former Athletic Bilbao manager was shaken by Neymar deciding to leave, as were the club on an institutional level.
The Brazilian winger forced his way out, joining Paris Saint-Germain for a world record 222 million euro ($260.96 million) fee, leaving Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez without their third musketeer.
The task of wrestling both La Liga and the Champions League from dominant rivals Real Madrid is significantly harder after Neymar's departure, as Barcelona lick their wounds following a disappointing season in which they only lifted the King's Cup.
However club morale was boosted by Messi agreeing to sign a new contract this summer, extending his stay until 2021.
In the transfer market, as well as beginning the search for a replacement for Neymar, Barcelona have been working to plug squad gaps which let them down during the crucial run-in period last season.
Sergi Roberto played out of position to fill the hole Dani Alves created when he left for Juventus last summer, but can now return to midfield with full-back Nelson Semedo arriving from Benfica.
Gerard Deulofeu was re-signed from Everton to pad out the squad's attacking options but is not expected to play a central role, while Marlon has made his loan stay at Camp Nou permanent.
Barcelona players labelled last season a failure and Gerard Pique among others has suggested a return to passing, possession football is what is needed for the club to restore their previous glories.
"I know all the previous coaches worked with Barca's stamp, that style which is recognised around the world," said Valverde.
"Fans know just by seeing the style which team it corresponds to. I know it. I've been here. I have to re-adapt, but my idea is to go even deeper with that style and to keep progressing."
With four wins and a draw from five pre-season friendlies, in which they utilised intense high-pressing football and showed more patience on the ball than in matches last season, Barcelona head into the new campaign battling adversity, but moving forward.
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(Edited by Simon Evans)