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Catalans under immense pressure to reclaim status as best in Europe

Barcelona defender Nelson Semedo (left), controls the ball as Napoli defender Faouzi Ghoulam (right), approaches during the first half of a soccer match on Aug 10 in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP)

Messi joined by Griezmann as Barca chase CL

BARCELONA, Spain, Aug 14, (AP):
Lionel Messi has the support of new signing Antoine Griezmann in attack as
Barcelona start the new season with one mission: to lift the Champions League
trophy again and end a five-year drought.

Barcelona have won consecutive
Spanish League titles and dominated with eight titles in the past 11 years.

But after back-to-back second-leg
collapses in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Barcelona’s players –
and above all coach Ernesto Valverde – are under immense pressure to reclaim
that status as the best in Europe.

Even though Messi has changed the
history of the Spanish club by leading them to 34 trophies, including 10
Spanish league crowns, some fans had started to complain the club have not done
enough to provide him with the support he needs to fully exploit his
unparalleled talent.

Messi continues to churn out
50-goal seasons, but Barcelona have not won the Champions League since 2015,
when the Argentine great claimed his fourth European crown with Barca.

Now, he has the help of
Griezmann, who was instrumental in France winning the World Cup last summer and
has joined from Spanish rivals Atlético Madrid to link up with Messi and Luis
Suárez in a potentially formidable forward line.

“I believe in this squad, in
these players and this coaching staff,” Messi told Barcelona’s fans at a
preseason match at Camp Nou stadium. “I have no doubt that together we will
again fight to win it all.” Messi is now 32 years old, and even though he
hasn’t lost a step and has improved his passing, vision and leadership skills
with each season, the clock is ticking on how long he can sustain his
exceptional level of performance.

Feeling that pressure, Barcelona
President Josep Bartomeu agreed to two transfers that will potentially cost the
club over 200 million euros for a pair of players the club believes will be
difference-makers.

 Forward Griezmann and Netherlands midfielder
Frenkie de Jong will be expected to make an immediate impact for Barcelona this
season.

The 28-year-old Griezmann arrived
after Barcelona triggered his 120-million-euro ($134-million) buyout clause to
free him from Atlético. He should add even more fire power up front after Messi
and Suárez combined for 76 goals last season.

Griezmann’s departure from
Atlético will also hurt Barcelona’s biggest rivals in the Spanish League in
recent years. Atlético were runners-up to Barcelona the last two seasons.

De Jong is Barcelona’s hope for
now and for the future. At 22, he arrives after a breakout campaign with Ajax,
who made it to the Champions League semifinals after upsetting both Real Madrid
and Juventus.

Barcelona believe De Jong can
become their leading playmaker in a midfield that has taken a step back since
the exits of greats Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta.

Barring a last-minute transfer
before the end of the summer market on Sept 2, Philippe Coutinho will get
another chance to win over Barcelona’s supporters after failing to live up to
expectations from a club-record transfer from Liverpool worth 160 million euros
(then $192 million) in 2017.

The Brazil playmaker has scored
21 goals in 75 appearances for Barcelona but has been criticized by fans for
not playing his best in decisive games.

A poor start to the season would
only rekindle speculation that his days at Camp Nou are numbered.

Ousmane Dembele is in a similar
position of needing to reset after a disappointing end to last season.

Dembele has shown spectacular
flashes of talent but the speedy 22-year-old winger has also been plagued by
injuries. His challenge now is to remain healthy so he can blossom into the
future star Barcelona think he can become.

Valverde has an almost impeccable
record in the Spanish League. He has led Barcelona to consecutive titles after
losing only four of 76 matches in those combined league campaigns.

But Valverde has been unable to
avoid stunning setbacks in the Champions League. Barcelona lost 3-0 at Roma,
squandering a 4-1 first-leg win, in the 2018 quarter-finals, and relived the
nightmare last year when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit by crushing Barcelona
4-0 in their semifinal second leg.

Barcelona also came up short in
last season’s Copa del Rey Final, losing 2-1 to Valencia.

Club President Bartomeu has been
unflinching in his backing of Valverde. But the former Athletic Bilbao manager
has little margin left and any rough patch would again put his job in danger.

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