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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

New faces and renewed focus at Camp Nou as Messi and Barcelona set sights on Champions League

The Catalans won a league-and-cup double in 2017/18, but early elimination from Europe saw their season fizzle out early. Following their 3-0 win over Boca Juniors on Wednesday, Messi left fans in no doubt what Barca's main objective is this season

Lionel Messi tells fans at the Camp Nou following a 3-0 win over Boca Juniors in the Gamper Trophy that winning the Champions League is the club's priority this season. EPA
Lionel Messi tells fans at the Camp Nou following a 3-0 win over Boca Juniors in the Gamper Trophy that winning the Champions League is the club's priority this season. EPA

Lionel Messi, named as Barcelona captain, took the microphone on the Camp Nou pitch before Wednesday’s Gamper friendly against Boca Juniors and their 8,000 travelling supporters.

Messi is naturally quiet and a near 70,000 crowd whose ears had been battered by the loud music of DJs for the previous hour struggled to hear him.

“We were left with the disappointment of the Champions League last season, especially because of the way we went out," he said. "We’re going to do everything possible to bring back that beautiful trophy back to Camp Nou.”

There you have it from a man who says little: Barca’s main aim this season is to win the Uefa Champions League and, in doing so, stop Real Madrid winning the competition an incredible fifth time in six years.

Barcelona won La Liga and the Copa del Rey last season, the second time in three years they have won a domestic double. It’s a fine achievement, and older fans can remember when Barca won only one league title between 1974 and 1991, yet it was still overshadowed by Real Madrid’s win in the Champions League final in Kiev.

The more glamorous Champions League features better teams than Spain’s La Liga and though Zinedine Zidane disagrees, it is harder to win and watched by more people. In the final act of the 2017/18 season, it was Real Madrid who left the stage in glory and on the minds of football fans until the World Cup finals started.

Ernesto Valverde did a superb job in his first season in charge of Barca, uniting a club that had called for the club's president to resign by winning football matches. Barca’s style wasn’t quite as attractive as under Pep Guardiola, but beating Madrid home and away, with Messi the star man, was more than enough for fans.

Everything was running as smoothly as possible for a club playing matches against a backdrop of the independence movement, but then the 3-0 quarter-final second-leg defeat in Rome stunned the Catalans and sent them out of the Champions League. Clear at the top of the league and with the Copa del Rey final played relatively early in April, the rest of their season fizzled out as Madrid faced epic European semi-finals against Bayern Munich and then beat Liverpool in the final.

Barcelona want to be there at the end of this season. They were as busy as usual in the summer transfer window, with 22-year-old Brazilian Arthur Melo arriving from Gremio with the reputation as the best player in South America. The plan is for him to somehow fill the shoes of the outgoing hero Andres Iniesta. Such is the financial disparity in wages offered, South American teams struggle to keep hold of their best young players. It wasn’t edifying to see the gulf in talent between Boca Juniors, Argentina’s champions and Barca.

Another young Brazilian, Malcom, 21, joined the Catalans from Bordeaux for €41 million (Dh171m). Malcom was was on the verge of a move to Roma - fans waited excitedly for his arrival at the airport - but Barca got a revenge of sorts for their Champions League elimination by pipping the Romans for the winger's signature before he boarded a flight to Italy.

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Read more:

Barcelona primed to tighten grip on La Liga but Europe may be bigger priority

Dembele the hero for Barcelona in Spanish Supercopa win over Sevilla

Barcelona and Spain's Gerard Pique announces international retirement

Arturo Vidal arrives at Barcelona aiming to 'win all the trophies available'

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Another Brazilian, Paulinho, departed, closing the odd case of him coming from China, doing far better than expected, and then leaving for China again.

Keeping with the South American recruitment theme (Barca’s three goalscorers against Boca were all South American), Chilean Arturo Vidal arrived from Bayern Munich, a talented, distracted, 31-year-old attacking midfielder who the Bavarians didn’t try too hard to keep. He describes himself as a footballer from the barrio.

Clement Lenglet, 23, also arrived, the French central defender signing for €35m after impressing at Sevilla. He could play alongside his ever-improving compatriot Samuel Umtiti. Central defender Yerry Mina departed for Everton along with Lucas Digne and Andre Gomes as Barca recouped €50m in sales.

Barca’s pre-season tour of the United States passed without problems, with Rafinha impressive and Catalan teenage midfielder Ricky Puig, 19, making a name for himself. Both featured in the Boca game.

Messi, who has scored a third of all Barca goals in the past decade, remains the main man, even more so since Iniesta’s departure to Japan. There are suggestions Messi will not play for Argentina again in 2018, while Gerard Pique has retired from international football. The Spanish defender will be vital in a squad balanced between experience and hugely talented young players.

Barca started this season with victory over Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup. With all Spanish games to be televised for free on Facebook in India, the clubs will be playing in front of an even bigger audience. Barcelona's season starts at home to Alaves on Saturday night, the 10.15pm kick-off time and other unusual starts a concern that Spanish football is playing more to a global TV audience in its race against the Premier League for more eyeballs than fans who actually attend matches.