Difficult summer, lack of signings could dent Barca title hopes

Madrid, Aug 12 (IANS) With less than a week until the start of the new season in the Spanish Primera Liga, FC Barcelona have played their last game of a difficult pre-season which has done little to convince the doubters that the club has successfully dealt with the problems which were apparent in the closing stages of the last campaign.

While it is true that Barca won the Primera Liga in convincing style, finishing 15 points ahead of Real Madrid and winning an incredible 32 out of 38 games, it is also the case that in the closing weeks of the season, several structural weaknesses became apparent, reports Xinhua.

The injury to veteran defender Carles Puyol showed the need to sign another central defender as Puyol's absence left the club with just Gerard Pique as the only experienced specialist centre-half.

The midfield also seemed to end the season 'running on empty' as Xavi Hernandez struggled with a hamstring injury, Sergio Busquets with pelvic problems and Cesc Fabregas with a series of physical problems due to the weight of games. Even star striker, Lionel Messi felt the pace as he too suffered muscle problems.

This was all thrown into the spotlight by the 2-4 aggregate defeat against Real Madrid in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey and above all by the 0-4 and 0-3 beatings handed out by a rampant Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

The summer was meant to resolve these problems and got off to a positive start with the confirmation of the signing of Neymar, the star of the Brazilian national team and the next media bombshell

However, things then went badly wrong: first of all with the announcement in mid-July that Tito Vilanova as stepping down as manager after the re-appearance of his illness, barely a week after starting pre-season training.

Apart from the obvious blow to the players' moral, it meant a search for a replacement and the club moved quickly to sign former Newell's Old Boys and Paraguay boss, Gerardo 'Tata' Martino, a man who they believe will continue with the trademark Barca style.

Early indications are that Martino has made subtle changes, such as raising the level of pressure on opposition defences and he may be slightly more willing to allow more direct football when circumstances demand.

Pre-season obligations have seen Barca play games in Germany, Norway and Poland before jetting off to Asia. Martino must be frustrated by the lack of time he has had to train seriously with his squad and at the level of some of the rivals.

8-0 wins at home to Santos, who were clearly in Barcelona to pick up a cheque, and 7-1 away to Thailand may boost morale, but the coach will have learnt little about how his squad will react when the chips are down and the fact that much of his squad will spend part of the coming week with their national squads must be very frustrating.

Several big names have left Barca this season: David Villa joining Atletico Madrid, Eric Abidal, whose contract was not extended after a successful battle against cancer, to Monaco and Thiago Alcantara opting to join Bayern.

Thiago's departure is tactically the most worrying as he stepped up to the mark at the end of last season and would have played more football this coming campaign as Martino looks to conserve Xavi, Busquets and Andres Iniesta's energies.

Meanwhile the club's attempts to sign a new central defender have so far ended in frustration, with offers for Paris Saint Germain's Thiago Silva and Chelsea's David Luiz both firmly rebuffed by their respective clubs.

Club president, Sandro Rosell has promised a new signing before the end of the month, and the fact is Barca need at least one, if not more arrivals before the transfer window closes.

The good news is that Neymar appears to have slotted in and will give more pace that Villa, while Messi is a football genius, capable of turning a game with a moment of magic.

The worry about the Argentine is that he ended last season with muscle problems, while commercial obligations over the summer saw his rest time severely limited. The fact a muscle problem saw him miss Barca's last pre-season friendly may be a cause for concern over the packed fixture calendar that lies ahead.

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