Barcelona host Manchester City in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie today in desperate need of a good performance to distract from their dreadful start to the year both on and off the field.
When the Catalan side were given the hardest draw open to them in a pairing with City in December last year, it was a minor setback on what had until then been a season that exceeded expectations.
Despite being hastily appointed just two weeks before the campaign began when former coach Tito Vilanova was forced to resign due to ongoing health problems, Barca’s Gerardo Martino oversaw the club’s best-ever start to a La Liga season.
Martino’s first defeat in charge came in the Champions League to a youthful Ajax side in November last year, but mattered little as Barca strolled through to the last 16 as winners of Group H.
However, this year has so far proved to be more difficult for the Spanish champions.
In January, Sandro Rosell resigned as president due to ongoing legal action for misappropriation of funds over the controversial signing of Brazilian star Neymar in May last year.
Rosell had insisted that the 22-year-old’s transfer cost the club 57 million euros (US$79 million), but the day after his departure, Barcelona released figures showing the overall cost of the operation — including a signing bonus for the player, marketing deals and other collaborative agreements — amounted to 86.2 million euros.
The club were then charged with tax fraud over the transfer and paid 13.5 million euros to the Spanish Treasury despite protesting that they had not committed any offense.
The controversy surrounding the transfer is “unfair” because the Spanish champions have done nothing wrong, new club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said on Monday.
“Barca is a very well-known brand name in the world and we have to take care of Barca of the club and doing this is prudent situation to keep the good image of our club,” Bartomeu told the BBC. “We don’t agree with the judge, of course. For us, this is an absurd and unfair situation because we did everything correctly in signing Neymar to FC Barcelona.”
“Barcelona acted in the proper way, but if somebody thinks that there is damage to the name of Barcelona then there is damage to be repaired,” Bartomeu added. “We are not happy with the situation, but we will defend our club very strongly.”
Those fiscal troubles have been reflected in the Liga title holders’ performances on the field and Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to lowly Real Valladolid saw them lose for the third time in six La Liga games.
Barca now trail archrivals Real Madrid by four points in the title race and still have to travel to the Santiago Bernabeu to face Los Blancos in a potential title decider on March 23.
However, the return of the Champions League does provide some light relief for the embattled Martino.
Barca’s 2-0 win away at the Etihad Stadium over City three weeks ago is widely seen as his most impressive result since taking charge and the English side’s visit to the Camp Nou offers the chance to dispel the doubts as a dip in form.
“We have lost one game and it seems as if someone has died,” Barca forward Alexis Sanchez said on Monday.
However, at the moment the club seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next.
Neymar’s arrival has been far more noteworthy for its impact off the field than on it. He has struggled to strike up a partnership with four-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi and looks a shadow of the player in a Barca strip compared with his form at the international level with Brazil.