With Cristiano Ronaldo injured, the spotlight was turned to Lionel Messi to take centre stage and shine during yesterday’s Copa Del Rey final between Messi’s Barcelona and Real Madrid. Little did Messi know that the spotlight would be snatched away from him so superbly by a flying Welshman in the form of Gareth Bale. The former Tottenham winger stole the show with a stunning performance and a wonder goal in the last few minutes of the game, handing Madrid the cup. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, Bale knocked the ball past Marc Barta and the chase was on. Despite Barta manhandling and pushing him off the pitch into the technical area, the sheer pace of Bale was all it took to ensure he regained the ball. Driving into the box, the Barcelona team could only watch in agony as he composed himself and drilled the ball past Jose Manuel Pinto for one of the best goals of his career. The entire move only took 7.2 seconds but confirmed Bale as one of the world’s best players.
For Barcelona, it’s another bitter blow in what looks likely to turn out to be a disappointing season. Out of the Champions League to Atletico Madrid and trailing in the league to the same team, the Copa Del Rey offered manager Gerardo Martino the opportunity to show that appointing him wasn’t a mistake. But as Bale broke down the left wing on the 84th minute, heading at full pace towards goal, Martino must have known that his time was up as head coach. This summer will be one of transformation for Barca, with a likely overhaul of the playing and coaching staff. Not an easy thing to do given the recent FIFA imposed transfer ban but Barcelona need to evolve and shake off what has been a miserable season. Martino stated after the defeat to Real Madrid that his job is safe; a foolish statement given Barcelona’s past history of success and hunger to continue to build on this. Martino will exit with Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp or Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde appointed in his place. Both men offer something different and will appeal to Barcelona’s two guiding principle themes – excitement and stability. Klopp has transformed Dortmund from Bundesliga underachievers to Champions League finalist, building a fast paced, high pressing team in the process. He has achieved a lot but with Pep Guardiola now working his magic on Bayern, the time for Klopp to test his skills in a different league may have come. His willingness to move will alert Premiership clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United who themselves need a fresh start, but the draw of Barcelona and the potential to win the Champions League will make the decision to move to Spain an easy one.
That is if the Barcelona board goes for Klopp as some suggest that they are leaning more towards former player Ernesto Valverde who could offer a return to stability for the club. The Bilbabo manager has impressed this season, guiding his team to 4th place in the league despite limited transfer funds. Valverde has bought wisely but also relied heavily on youth players coming through the ranks with Erik Moran, Iker Muniain and Aymeric Laporte playing pivotal roles for his team this season. His ability to operate under these conditions and utilize the youth system will appeal to Barcelona who find themselves unable to expand the squad through traditional transfers for the next two windows. As a former Barcelona player and a seasoned La Liga manager, he already has a deep understanding of the club and what role it plays in the league, something that Martino has struggled with since his arrival.
Both men are strong options but they will face the same issues unless Barcelona can overturn their transfer ban. They will enter the Nou Camp knowing that they are picking up an aging squad, with low morale and too many stars playing either below par or out of position. Getting the best out of Neymar and Messi, similar to how Carlo Ancelotti is doing with Bale and Ronaldo at Real, will be key as well as replacing fundamental members of the first team squad who are departing at the end of the season. Carlos Puyol and Victor Valdes will leave gaping holes at the back whilst rumours about Xavi’s potential exit still exist. The trio will be hard to replace, even harder with the ban still in place. Looking toward the clubs famed La Masia academy for replacements may be the only option with Sergi Gomez, Adrian Ortola and Denis Suarez promoted to first team duties quicker than expected. It will be a difficult summer for Barcelona, transition is never easy but it’s a necessity after a disastrous season for the Catalan club.