Business as usual or business unusual, that is the question as Lionel Messi returns to work on Sunday—with a new coach in Ronald Koeman and without Luis Suarez, his partner on the pitch and friend off it. "(The possibility of) Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona wasn't very nice. That was a bit of distraction because he is a very important player for La Liga," said league ambassador Luis Garcia ahead of Barcelona's opener, against Unai Emery's Villarreal.
"What is most important is what happens when he joins training. He looks like, as we all were expecting, giving 100%," said the former Barcelona, Liverpool and Atletico de Kolkata player on a Zoom call with select journalists on Thursday.
Messi, Barcelona's all-time highest scorer with 634 goals, joined training later than his teammates but has played in all three Barcelona friendlies, scoring two goals in one.
Barcelona have sold Ivan Rakitic, Nelson Semedo and Arturo Vidal but it is Suarez, their third highest scorer with 198 goals and the only player in the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era to have been La Liga's highest scorer, who could be missed.
"You did not deserve for them to throw you out like they did. But the truth is at this stage nothing surprises me anymore," said Messi in an Instagram post on Friday.
Barcelona play around Messi and there have been attacking players who haven't clicked with him. It is a long list of exemplary performers such as Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto'o. With Suarez, there was no problem. Now it will have to be seen how Messi clicks with Antoine Griezmann, likely to be Suarez's replacement. If fit, a hurting Suarez could be just what Atletico Madrid need to solve their goal-scoring problem.
Koeman, Pep Guardiola's partner in Barcelona's 'Dream Team' under Johan Cruyff, is also likely to ditch the 4-3-3 formation for 4-2-3-1 to allow Frenkie de Jong to express himself like at Holland. With Miralem Pjanic joining, it could mean Sergio Busquets, another one of the club's old guard who president Josep Maria Bartomeu wants to sell, getting less game time. If Pjanic and de Jong form a holding midfield partnership, Gerrard Pique and Messi could be the only players from the famous Guardiola years Koeman uses regularly. A number of young players have joined and Philippe Coutinho is back.
"These last few months… it hasn't been the best way to get into Barcelona's manager's position. A new coach, a new way of playing but with the same philosophy, you could call this a transition but I will put Barcelona in the title fight along with Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and maybe Sevilla," said Garcia.
Fernando Morientes, also a league ambassador, added Villarreal and Real Betis to that mix.
Real Madrid are also a team in transition. They have off-loaded 16 players, including Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. "The coach probably didn't want protagonists who could cause problems on a daily basis," said Morientes, a striker who had scored 72 goals in his career for Real Madrid.
The club has not bought any players either, reposing faith instead on loaned players such as Martin Odegaard (21), goalie Andre Lunin (21) and right-back Alvaro Odriozola (24). Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo and Federico Valverde are some of other junior players at Real. "We need to start to let young players be protagonists now," said Morientes