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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Spanish Primera Liga preview: Barcelona face new role as underdogs to Real Madrid in title fight

There may still be new recruits to be brought to Camp Nou before the transfer window shuts, but at present the Catalan side face a tough task to regain their league crown.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez's frustrated looks on Wednesday after Barcelona lost 2-0 to Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup sum up a difficult summer for the Catalan side. Juan Medina / Reuters
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez's frustrated looks on Wednesday after Barcelona lost 2-0 to Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup sum up a difficult summer for the Catalan side. Juan Medina / Reuters

These are awkward times for Barcelona.

No matter how the Barca-centric media in Catalonia revise their history, the unexpected departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain stung.

Even though his annual contract demands irked the board, the Brazilian is one of the best players in the world, one who fitted in well alongside Lionel Messi, something Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa did not do seamlessly.

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At 25, Neymar was also young enough to bring the average age of the Barca players down.

Lionel Messi is 30, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez too. Ivan Rakitic is 29, the same age as new €40 million (Dh172.7m) Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, signed from Guangzhou Evergrande.

The signing of the former Tottenham Hotspur man did not elicit a positive reaction from fans who were still disappointed after Sunday’s 3-1 home defeat to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup first leg.

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Fans do not think Paulinho is Barca class, but he deserves a chance at the very least, one new coach Ernesto Valverde, who replaces the successful Luis Enrique, will give him.

The former Barca and Athletic Bilbao player who came from a successful spell managing Bilbao is serious, respected and talented.

He did not want to lose Neymar either and he could do without the negative atmosphere surrounding the club, with pressure on president Josep Bartomeu, whose “Neymar is now history, no player above Barca” quote did not soften the blow of his departure, however correct he is.

Bartomeu, who has to oversee the expensive redevelopment of Camp Nou, angered fans with high ticket prices for Sunday’s Super Cup match, when tourists in Real Madrid shirts were seen all around the stadium.

Barca have seen storms come and blow over quickly many times before. A calm will prevail if the team starts winning and playing well, beginning with Sunday’s league opener against Real Betis, but some of the concerns are genuine.

The famed Masia youth academy is not producing the same quality of players as it did and Real Madrid’s pre-eminence hardly lifts the mood, though the expected signing of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool will help.

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Barca had had their €85m plus €15m add-ons rejected by Liverpool, but that is unlikely to be their final offer.

Dortmund striker Ousmane Dembele is another target and would be favoured over the returning Catalan Gerard Deulofeu, but Barca are unlikely to sign Coutinho and Dembele without selling more players first and fans do not fully trust the board to spend the €222m Neymar windfall effectively.

Andy Mitten's Spanish Primera Liga preview:

The versatile Sergi Roberto, could leave for €40m while Arda Turan, so effective at Atletico, has been a disappointment at Camp Nou.

Last season’s new signings need to improve, too. Samuel Umtiti already looks an accomplished defender, but Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer need to fulfil their potential.

There are high hopes for new full-back Nelson Semedo to fill the problem right back position after signing from Benfica, as for emerging Catalan midfielder Carlos Alena, 19.

Twelve of the last thirteen league titles have gone to one of Spain’s big two and the dominance will almost certainly continue this season, but for the first time in a decade, Madrid are clear favourites for the title.