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Sunday , September 15 2019

Catalans under immense pressure to reclaim status as best in Europe

Barcelona defender Nelson Semedo (left), controls the ball as Napoli defender Faouzi Ghoulam (right), approaches during the first half of a soccer match on Aug 10 in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP)

Messi joined by Griezmann as Barca chase CL

BARCELONA, Spain, Aug 14, (AP): Lionel Messi has the support of new signing Antoine Griezmann in attack as Barcelona start the new season with one mission: to lift the Champions League trophy again and end a five-year drought.

Barcelona have won consecutive Spanish League titles and dominated with eight titles in the past 11 years.

But after back-to-back second-leg collapses in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Barcelona’s players – and above all coach Ernesto Valverde – are under immense pressure to reclaim that status as the best in Europe.

Even though Messi has changed the history of the Spanish club by leading them to 34 trophies, including 10 Spanish league crowns, some fans had started to complain the club have not done enough to provide him with the support he needs to fully exploit his unparalleled talent.

Messi continues to churn out 50-goal seasons, but Barcelona have not won the Champions League since 2015, when the Argentine great claimed his fourth European crown with Barca.

Now, he has the help of Griezmann, who was instrumental in France winning the World Cup last summer and has joined from Spanish rivals Atlético Madrid to link up with Messi and Luis Suárez in a potentially formidable forward line.

“I believe in this squad, in these players and this coaching staff,” Messi told Barcelona’s fans at a preseason match at Camp Nou stadium. “I have no doubt that together we will again fight to win it all.” Messi is now 32 years old, and even though he hasn’t lost a step and has improved his passing, vision and leadership skills with each season, the clock is ticking on how long he can sustain his exceptional level of performance.

Feeling that pressure, Barcelona President Josep Bartomeu agreed to two transfers that will potentially cost the club over 200 million euros for a pair of players the club believes will be difference-makers.

 Forward Griezmann and Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong will be expected to make an immediate impact for Barcelona this season.

The 28-year-old Griezmann arrived after Barcelona triggered his 120-million-euro ($134-million) buyout clause to free him from Atlético. He should add even more fire power up front after Messi and Suárez combined for 76 goals last season.

Griezmann’s departure from Atlético will also hurt Barcelona’s biggest rivals in the Spanish League in recent years. Atlético were runners-up to Barcelona the last two seasons.

De Jong is Barcelona’s hope for now and for the future. At 22, he arrives after a breakout campaign with Ajax, who made it to the Champions League semifinals after upsetting both Real Madrid and Juventus.

Barcelona believe De Jong can become their leading playmaker in a midfield that has taken a step back since the exits of greats Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta.

Barring a last-minute transfer before the end of the summer market on Sept 2, Philippe Coutinho will get another chance to win over Barcelona’s supporters after failing to live up to expectations from a club-record transfer from Liverpool worth 160 million euros (then $192 million) in 2017.

The Brazil playmaker has scored 21 goals in 75 appearances for Barcelona but has been criticized by fans for not playing his best in decisive games.

A poor start to the season would only rekindle speculation that his days at Camp Nou are numbered.

Ousmane Dembele is in a similar position of needing to reset after a disappointing end to last season.

Dembele has shown spectacular flashes of talent but the speedy 22-year-old winger has also been plagued by injuries. His challenge now is to remain healthy so he can blossom into the future star Barcelona think he can become.

Valverde has an almost impeccable record in the Spanish League. He has led Barcelona to consecutive titles after losing only four of 76 matches in those combined league campaigns.

But Valverde has been unable to avoid stunning setbacks in the Champions League. Barcelona lost 3-0 at Roma, squandering a 4-1 first-leg win, in the 2018 quarter-finals, and relived the nightmare last year when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit by crushing Barcelona 4-0 in their semifinal second leg.

Barcelona also came up short in last season’s Copa del Rey Final, losing 2-1 to Valencia.

Club President Bartomeu has been unflinching in his backing of Valverde. But the former Athletic Bilbao manager has little margin left and any rough patch would again put his job in danger.

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