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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Barcelona are beating the drum for excellence and independence

Face a struggling Las Palmas under new management at Camp Nou with Catalonia's referendum on independence providing an extra layer of fizz

Barcelona kept up their 100 per cent winning start to the season with a 1-0 win over Sporting in Lisbon in the Uefa Champions League on Wednesday. Pedro Nunes / Reuters
Barcelona kept up their 100 per cent winning start to the season with a 1-0 win over Sporting in Lisbon in the Uefa Champions League on Wednesday. Pedro Nunes / Reuters

On Tuesday, the former Liverpool assistant manager Pako Ayestaran, whose last job was a brief spell at Valencia after replacing Gary Neville, wrote an opinion piece about Barcelona’s start to the season. Ayestaran’s column was for the UK's Independent newspaper, a way of keeping a public profile as he searched for a job.

“It’s remarkable now to think how lost Barcelona looked after the loss of that Super Cup match and the loss of Neymar,” opined Ayestaran. “Any side can only respond in one of two ways, though, by allowing negativity to take over or asserting themselves. They have emphatically done the latter, not least Leo Messi. He looks more committed than ever, as if he wants to emphasise that he’s always been the most important player. Jordi Alba has also upped his game without Neymar there, while Ivan Rakitic has clicked.

"Barca’s response actually reminds me of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, upping their stats when everyone expected a drop. Here, everyone at Barca wants to show they are more than Neymar. There’s no anxiety there.”

Not that, as it turned out, he needed the publicity. On Wednesday evening, Ayestaran was named as the new manager of Las Palmas, replacing Manolo Marquez who had won only two of his opening six games. Ayestaran’s first task is to prepare his team to face Barcelona, the subject of his article, this Sunday. He knows how good they are and his job won’t be made any easier by the significant injury list at Las Palmas.

No one would argue with Ayestaran’s assessment of the Catalans. The mood has completely shifted in six weeks since Real Madrid outclassed Barcelona twice in the Super Cup. Then, fans were singing for the club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign. Signatures were still being collected this week for the 16,750 needed to force a vote of no confidence in Bartomeu, but the numbers have stalled around 11,000 as the team keeps on winning.

Bartomeu is likely to stay, though fans are still uneasy about the situation of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta’s contracts. Bartomeu claimed they had signed; they haven’t. Yet with each win – and Barca have won all eight games since that second Madrid defeat – the criticism subsides.

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There has been another unexpected bonus for Barca: Real Madrid’s stumbles. Imperious at the start of August, the Spanish, European and world champions have not won any of their opening three league games at home and are already seven points behind their great rivals.

Credit must go to new Barca manager Ernesto Valverde, a calm figure in the storm around him and one who has overseen six clean sheets in those eight straight victories.

Barca have had a relatively easy start to the season and their next game against Las Palmas isn’t expected to be difficult, though the environment surrounding it could be, with a planned vote towards Catalan independence, which has been declared illegal by Spain.

“From now until Sunday, let’s express ourselves peacefully,” tweeted Gerard Pique. “We do not give them any excuse. That’s what they want. We will sing, stand tall and be strong.”

The Camp Nou crowd will be unusually raucous, but home attendances so far have been down, with crowds of 54,560 in the opening game against Real Betis, 72,857 for the Catalan derby against Espanyol and only 49,693 for the visit of Eibar, their lowest league crowd for over a decade.

All have been below last season’s average of 78,443. Last month's terrorist attack in the city did impact on the Betis attendance, as did a 10pm kick off for the Eibar match, but fans will return if Barca keep winning, especially against teams of the calibre of Atletico Madrid, who they meet after the international break. And even more if the football becomes more entertaining.

A criticism of Valverde’s side is that it’s not as exciting as the Barca of previous seasons, especially when Messi doesn’t play well – which is rare, admittedly. Luis Suarez has only scored twice in 10 games and Sporting Lisbon were in control for large parts of Wednesday’s Uefa Champions League group game, only to lose 1-0 thanks to a Sebastian Coates own goal.

Las Palmas are unlikely to pose the same problems on a day when more attention will be focussed on Barcelona for political rather than sporting reasons.