By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – After sweeping to last season’s title and seeing Real Madrid weakened by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona look well placed to retain their La Liga crown although improving their Champions League fortunes may prove a bigger priority.
Despite clinching the title with four games to spare and also lifting the Copa del Rey, there was an empty feeling towards the end of the campaign in Catalonia after Barca were dumped out of Europe’s biggest competition by AS Roma in the quarter-finals after blowing a three-goal lead in the tie.
That disappointment had some calling for the head of coach Ernesto Valverde despite his astounding domestic achievements, which quickly became overshadowed by arch-rivals Real Madrid winning a third consecutive European crown.
Barca’s last Champions League triumph came in 2015, and since then they have failed to get beyond the quarter-finals while Real have monopolised the trophy.
After missing out on signing their top target Antoine Griezmann from last year’s runners-up Atletico Madrid, Barca’s summer transfer activity has pointed to having a more robust squad to prevent players suffering from the fatigue which led to that shock 3-0 defeat in Rome.
Highly experienced Chile international Arturo Vidal is their most eye-catching acquisition while Valverde has also added defender Clement Lenglet and Brazilian midfielders Arthur Melo and Malcom to his team, who will once again look to Lionel Messi for inspiration.
Vidal has talked about his hunger to win Europe’s biggest prize, remarking after his 19-million euro move from Bayern Munich that he wanted to lift the Champions League trophy five times with the Catalans.
Barca defender Gerard Pique, however, has dismissed the suggestion his side will prioritise progress in Europe over retaining the league.
“It would be very bold to say we have to win the Champions League at any cost because if you have one bad day you are sent home,” he said.
“The main objective should be La Liga. We have to go for every competition, but La Liga is our daily bread. Barca have also never won the Champions League without winning the league, so we need to think about winning the league.”
The Catalans had an underwhelming return to action in the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday, scraping a 2-1 win over Sevilla who squandered a stoppage-time penalty.
They may also struggle to adapt to life without Andres Iniesta, their puppet master in midfield for the last 16 years who left the club of his life in June to see out his career in Japan, handing the captain’s armband to Messi.
An equally fascinating development will be How Real Madrid cope with the twin departures of all-time top scorer Ronaldo and popular coach Zinedine Zidane, who has been succeeded by former Spain boss Julen Lopetegui.
The instability at Real could play into the hands of Barca, although it should not be forgotten that the Catalans were expected to struggle last season in Valverde’s debut season after parting ways with Neymar, but ended up finishing a MASSIVE 17 points clear of Real.
(Reporting by Richard Martin, Editing by Ed Osmond)