Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman faces a daunting task of preparing for the new season while still not knowing whether he will be able to count on Lionel Messi or any of the new signings due to the club's crippling debts - while being well aware he will be blamed if the team do not deliver.
Koeman has taken the squad, minus Messi, to Stuttgart, Germany for pre-season training in order to get the players in shape in a cooler climate than Barcelona's humid summer.
They will play a friendly against Bundesliga side Stuttgart on Saturday before heading to Austria to face RB Salzburg, then rounding off the pre-season back in Barcelona against Juventus.
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From now until Barca's La Liga opener against Real Sociedad on August 15, the focus is on getting the players as sharp as possible and ensure of last season, when Barca took only 14 points from their first 10 league games in their worst start to a season in 33 years.
Koeman repeatedly said the team's poor physical shape was the top number one factor behind the slump, along with injuries to teenage sensation Ansu Fati plus experienced defenders Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto.
The team's scant pre-season meant the team were playing catch- up with fitness levels and it was not until the turn of the year that they got back in to shape.
The team staged a dramatic turnaround in 2021 which saw them win a stunning 16 games from 19 to haul themselves back into the title race only to suffer a shock collapse in form when it mattered most, winning only two of their final six games to finish third behind champions Atletico Madrid and runner-up Real.
Barca's limp end to the campaign almost cost Koeman his job, with president Joan Laporta appearing far from enthusiastic with the Dutchman, a club legend as a player but with a patchy recent record as a coach.
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Koeman had been appointed by predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu and Laporta was far from satisfied with the team only winning the Copa del Rey, finishing third in La Liga for the first time in 13 years and being thrashed 5-2 on aggregate by Paris Saint-Germain in their earliest Champions League exit in 14 years.
He refused to back the coach at first and took a two-week period of reflection before deciding to stick with Koeman without offering him a new contract.
The lack of support went down badly with Koeman and his camp, with the coach's agency writing a not-so-subtle Tweet saying:
"Imagine: I want to marry you, but I have doubts. Give me two weeks to find a better partner… If I can’t find the right person, we will get married anyway!”
Koeman has not exactly been backed in the transfer market either, with the club spending no money so far, although they still have made three important signings in Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia and Memphis Depay.
Lionel Messi (Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
Koeman was enamoured with Depay after coaching him with the Netherlands he tried to sign the forward in the summer and winter transfer windows.
The forward should bring extra power and pace to Barca's attack and reduce the goalscoring burden on Messi, while Aguero, a close friend of the Barca captain, will be a guarantee of goals from the bench.
Spain centre-back Garcia, who grew up at Barca's academy before heading to Manchester City, is perhaps the most important signing of the trio.
Barca were left so short in defence last season they had to rely upon youngsters Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza, who one year previously were plying their trade in the club's reserve side in Spain's third division.
In ordinary times, these signings would have offered plenty of optimism but right now Barca's financial turmoil means they are unable to register their new arrivals with La Liga unless they make significant savings elsewhere.
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Koeman, however, knows the club's money problems will not give him any excuse if the team do not get off to a strong start.
"With me as president, there are no transition seasons," Laporta warned in May.
"Before, if we lost, nothing happened, but with me there are going to be consequences."
The league's regulations, which set each club a specific budget according to their income for the coming season, are also holding up the club's plan to re-sign Messi, who remarkably is no longer under contract with the club where he has spent his entire career and most of his life.
Memphis Depay (Barcelona)
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There have been some calls for the league to relax the rules to allow Messi to stay at Barca, but La Liga president Javier Tebas has made it clear he will not make any exception, not even to ensure the league keeps its all-time top scorer.
Messi has recently returned to Barcelona after leading Argentina to Copa America glory but has not travelled to Germany and nor has Laporta, who is staying in the city to put the final touches to the deal.
There is a sense of deja-vu here for Koeman and Barca, as Messi was absent from the start of last year's pre-season after declaring his intention to leave the club by sending them the infamous burofax, an official notice of his wish to quit.
The situation is very different this time as Messi wants to stay and according to reports has agreed to halve his salary.
But the reality is the same: Barca are preparing for a new campaign under a cloud of uncertainty, with Koeman tasked with keeping everything together.
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