Football: Barcelona begin testing week as Dynamo Kiev and Real Madrid await
Ronald Koeman said his players will benefit from knowing he is staying on as Barcelona coach and his theory will be tested by a pivotal week that starts when they host Valencia on Sunday.
After Valencia, Barca face Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League on Wednesday before hosting Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season four days later.
Koeman might feel buoyed by the backing of his president but he will also know the reprieve given to him by Joan Laporta before the international break comes with conditions attached.
Barcelona cannot afford further stumbles against Valencia and Madrid, given they sit ninth in La Liga after seven games played, already five points behind Madrid at the top of the table, albeit having a game in hand.
And another slip against Dynamo in midweek could spell the end of their hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, after defeats by Bayern Munich and Benfica left Barca rooted to the bottom of Group E.
Many believed these matches would be the first for a new coach, after a run of one victory in six games left Koeman looking beleaguered, isolated and out of touch with his president and players.
– ‘Leaks’ –
In the press conference before Barcelona’s last game against Atletico Madrid, Koeman offered only a little resistance to questions presuming his departure was imminent.
“I have eyes and ears and I know that things are being leaked. They are probably true, but nobody has told me,” Koeman said.
Instead, Laporta emerged on the morning of the Atletico game to say Koeman’s job was safe and that he would continue regardless of the result at the Wanda Metropolitano, where a few hours later Barca limped to a 2-0 defeat.
“Previously there was no clarity,” said Koeman after the game.
“It is very important for the confidence of the coach and for the players too, that they know the coach is still here.
“We are Barca, we have to win games, this pressure is also normal. It exists for any coach but especially at Barca.
“But the president has spoken well. He has made his decision and everything is perfect.”
Laporta was reportedly considering Xavi Hernandez, Roberto Martinez and Andrea Pirlo as Koeman’s successors but he has, at least for now, called off the search.
Perhaps none were keen to take over a club still suffering the enormous effects of financial meltdown.
Koeman, though, assured Laporta the team will improve when injured players return, with Ousmane Dembele and Sergio Aguero both back in training on Monday.
A calf injury has meant Aguero is yet to make his Barcelona debut since joining from Manchester City in the summer while Dembele has not played since undergoing knee surgery in June.
Aguero is the more likely of the two to be involved against Valencia, who enjoyed an encouraging start under new coach Jose Bordalas but have failed to win any of their last four games.
Defeats by Real Madrid and Sevilla were not unexpected but draws against Athletic Bilbao and Cadiz might offer Barcelona encouragement.
Valencia are eighth, above Barca on goal difference.
Real Sociedad show little sign of slowing and they will jump from third to first by beating Mallorca on Saturday, with Atletico Madrid’s game against Granada and Real Madrid’s against Athletic Bilbao postponed.
Both Madrid teams have Champions League matches on Tuesday and might have struggled to fulfil their La Liga fixtures after FIFA’s decision to extend the South American international break until Friday.
Levante v Getafe (1630), Real Sociedad v Mallorca (1900)
Rayo Vallecano v Elche (1200), Celta Vigo v Sevilla (1415), Villarreal v Osasuna (1630), Barcelona v Valencia (1900)
Alaves v Real Betis (1700), Espanyol v Cadiz (1900)