Liga title first step on Barca's long road to recovery

·4-min read
Attack: Barcelona's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski celebrates scoring the opening goal against Espanyol on Sunday
Attack: Barcelona's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski celebrates scoring the opening goal against Espanyol on Sunday

Barcelona's La Liga triumph proves they are heading in the right direction, but the road back towards Europe's elite remains long and treacherous.

President Joan Laporta mortgaged part of the club's future last summer to sign Robert Lewandowski, Jules Kounde and other star names, with Barcelona over 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in debt.

It paid off in the top flight as Barcelona won the league for the first time in four years, but a humiliating Champions League group elimination saw the Catalans drop into the Europa League.

Their stay in Europe's second tier didn't last long either, knocked out by Manchester United in a play-off tie, and were left to watch rivals Real Madrid cruise into the Champions League semi-finals.

The full outcome of that gamble, which saw Barcelona sell 25 percent of future domestic television rights for the next 25 years, may not be clear for a long time, but in the short term, success is imperative.

Barcelona's league and Spanish Super Cup wins are the minimum that could be expected, and significant improvement on the continent is needed next season.

Their Champions League exit showed the team still needs strengthening beyond the starting line-up, because a spate of badly-timed injuries induced their European collapse.

However the economic "palancas" -- levers -- that Barcelona pulled last summer to make signings were a one-time-only parachute for the club to use.

This summer they need to make over 200 million euros ($218 million) in savings or new revenue to be able to operate without their hands tied in the market.

Until then, Barcelona are only permitted to spend up to 40 percent of any incomings or savings on new players or contract renewals, and there are some clear areas they need to improve.

Barcelona need a striker to fill in for Lewandowski. They could also use a left winger and also a right-back -- Kounde has been playing there out of position.

Midfield lynchpin Sergio Busquets confirmed he is leaving in June at the end of his contract, which while offering an economic boost, means they must sign a replacement.

Coach Xavi Hernandez is thought to like Real Sociedad's Martin Zubimendi, but his prohibitive 60 million euro ($66 million) release clause means he may have to settle for an alternative.

Unlike rivals Real Madrid, linked with Borussia Dortmund star Jude Bellingham, Barcelona are unable to cherry-pick from the cream of the crop.

- The Messi maze -

Perhaps one exception is Lionel Messi, whom the club have publicly courted for a fairytale return as his contract runs down at PSG.

However the 35-year-old World Cup winner may choose a lucrative move to Saudi Arabia instead, which a source told AFP was a "done deal".

If Messi does return for a Barcelona farewell, Xavi would likely need a new formation to accomodate him.

The Argentine could add the quality the team needs in the final third but may weaken them defensively and in pressing.

Lewandowski's form in the second half of the season has been a concern for Barcelona, with the bulk of his goals coming before the World Cup.

The Polish international turns 35 in August and relying on him as their main source of goals carries a risk.

Xavi's own ceiling as a coach is still unknown.

While he has clearly improved Barcelona, in knock-out competitions the team have struggled.

To add further uncertainty, the "Caso Negreira" refereeing scandal still looms over Barcelona, with UEFA looking into the matter.

Any potential penalty from the European football governing body will likely not affect the club next season, but it is another concern for Laporta and Co to bear in mind.

Always in the eye of the storm, Barcelona are also losing sporting director and deal-king Mateu Alemany, who is leaving in June, a year before the end of his contract.

The director has pledged to help Barcelona finish their summer business, even if it stretches on until the end of August.

However Alemany's departure remains a significant blow for a club who need the sharpest tools in the box at their disposal, at this time more than ever.