Totally reliant on Messi, why Koeman is ’99 per cent likely’ to be sacked
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Expert
Ronald Koeman’s spell as Barcelona coach looks to be drawing to an end. Defeat to Celta Vigo at Camp Nou on Sunday saw the Blaugrana drop out of the title race with a whimper and for the first time since 2007-08, the Catalans will finish outside the top two.
On Saturday, Koeman had said he felt “badly treated” by the media in recent weeks and revealed that he wanted to stay for a second season at Camp Nou, providing he had the confidence of the club.
That part is key. The Dutchman was brought in last summer by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu to lead the team through a tough transition, but does not appear to feature in the plans of new chief Joan Laporta.
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Even when Barcelona won the Copa del Rey with an emphatic 4-0 victory over Athletic Club in April, Laporta stopped short of confirming Koeman would stay beyond the summer and on Sunday night, Catalan station RAC 1 put the Dutchman’s likelihood of leaving in June at 99 per cent.
Those reports followed Barca’s 2-1 loss at home to Celta, a result which means the Catalans have now picked up just five points from a possible 15 in their last five fixtures.
In a way, Koeman is a victim of his own success: earlier in the campaign, Barcelona were way off the pace in LaLiga and were propelled back into contention by an extraordinary 19-match unbeaten run in the middle of the season.
After 16 wins and three draws, Barcelona were within touching distance of leaders Atletico Madrid, but a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid in early April raised fresh doubts over Koeman and his disappointing big-match record in particular. The team has gradually declined even further in recent weeks.
The Dutchman’s in-game management was questioned again as Barcelona held on nervously for a 2-1 win at Villarreal. Defeat at home to Granada by the same scoreline followed and back-to-back draws against Atletico and Levante last week all but ended the team’s title hopes.
At Levante on Tuesday night, Barcelona threw away a two-goal advantage and then let a 3-2 lead slip as well.
On Thursday, Koeman met Laporta and Barca’s sporting vice-president Rafael Yuste for lunch in a restaurant in central Barcelona.
“It was a relaxed meeting,” the president told waiting media outside the restaurant.
But he would give no indication of the coach’s future.
Laporta is said to have asked Koeman for an explanation after Barcelona’s 3-3 draw at Levante, but more are needed now.
Against Celta, Lionel Messi put Barca in front with a rare header, but two goals from Santi Mina saw Celta claim an unlikely win.
Asked again about his future afterwards, Koeman said: “I won’t answer. I already said yesterday what I think and I won’t repeat myself.”
The feeling within the club is that the Dutchman has led Barcelona well during a difficult time and his use of young players has particularly pleased both the board and the fans.
But tactically, he has come up short. Defensive errors are more prevalent than before, with Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet both culpable among others. On Sunday, the Frenchman’s needless red card cost Barcelona again.
Even the ultra-reliable Marc-Andre ter Stegen has suffered a dip in form and the German is not among the world’s best goalkeepers on recent evidence. Perhaps the pressure of playing in front of a shaky back line is taking its toll.
Meanwhile, Koeman’s substitutions are often late and have had little impact. He has hardly used exciting midfielder Riqui Puig. Another fan favourite, Ousmane Dembele, has been in and out of the side. In addition, the Dutchman’s insistence on using the out-of-sorts Sergi Roberto has baffled even his staunchest supporters.
And as usual, Messi has had to assume the bulk of the responsibility in attack. The Argentine is out of contract in the summer and Sunday’s loss could have been his last game at Camp Nou as a Barcelona player.
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“Let’s hope not,” Koeman said later. “Because he is still the best in the world and today has also shown it’s impossible to play without him.
“He has scored 30 goals in LaLiga and he has given us many points.” And he added: “If Leo isn’t here, we have a doubt about who will score the goals.”
Those quotes are unlikely to go down too well within the club and if Messi is to be persuaded to stay, he will need to be seduced by an ambitious sporting project.
Given the events of the past few weeks and despite all the difficulties this season, including injuries and an imbalanced squad, it is hard to see Koeman at the forefront of such a project.
Meanwhile, Barcelona legend Xavi has arrived in Catalunya on holiday and it is rumoured that the former midfielder will meet with Laporta for talks some time over the next couple of weeks.
Xavi has recently renewed with Qatari club Al-Sadd and it is hoped he will stay at least until next year’s World Cup, for which he is expected to be an ambassador, but he has made no secret of his wish to coach Barcelona and has a clause in his deal allowing him to join the Catalan club.
Should he decide to stay, Barcelona B coach Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta is another alternative for the first team next season and he trained many members of the squad —including Messi— in their younger years.
Whatever does happen in the coming weeks, it looks increasingly likely that Koeman will not be in charge by the time the 2021-22 season comes around.