Inter will be playing for its Champions League lifes when FC Barcelona comes to town this week. The last time that happened had a less than ideal ending for the Nerazzurri, and it’s going to take a special effort from Simone Inzaghi’s men to avoid a similar fate. To prepare we sat down with our sister site Barca Blaugranes. Gill Clark and Renato Gonçalves were kind enough to answer my wonders about the Spanish giants, from how it survived its financial problems to what we can expect from Xavi and Company Tuesday.
Q: Barcelona’s financial problems have been the topic of many conversations and are especially of interest to money-strapped Inter. How did Barca manage to stabilize and even splurge a bit in the market? Are the club’s worries over for good?
A: President Joan Laporta had to get creative. Solving the financial problems with big sales wasn’t possible because the salaries were too high for other teams to be interested in our players, and prize money from winning titles was getting more and more unrealistic every season. So Laporta decided to sell some club assets, most notably their La Liga television rights, for big short-term money. They paid a whole lot of bills and had money left to sign big players, so the money was well utilized for sure. But they’ll only get 75% of their TV rights over the next 25 years as part of the deal, so it’s hard to know how it impacts them in the future. But if they go back to winning titles and signing big players that sell lots of shirts and make fans fill the stadium, which is going to be state of the art and hugely profitable in a few years, they could make enough money to make this summer’s moves a lot less risky. But there is risk, undoubtedly.
Q: How happy are you with Barcelona’s summer transfer window? Which of the new signings have hit the ground running or underperformed?
A: I’m still getting over the shock of seeing so many good players being signed for so much money, but there’s no question the summer business was really good. Robert Lewandowski felt like a game-changer the moment it became official, and it’s worked out better than anyone could have expected. He’s still clearly one of the very few best goalscorers on planet Earth, and he’s an absolutely perfect fit in Xavi’s system. The other signings, like Raphinha, Kounde, Kessie, and Christensen, haven’t had the statistical impact that Lewandowski has but still have looked very good in their respective roles. The two full-backs signed on a free on Deadline Day, Héctor Bellerín and Marcos Alonso, are backups who will just be asked to do their jobs in less important matches. Barça fans aren’t exactly thrilled about those two, but they weren’t expected to be major contributors anyway. Overall, the summer signings are looking really good and will help Barça have a real shot at winning big this season.
Q: Xavi is now in his first full season at the helm. What have been the main pillars of his tenure so far? Anything he needs to work on?
A: Xavi has been a very positive surprise, despite the natural ups and downs of a young coach in his first big job. The team is highly competitive and fights for 90 minutes in every game, a very welcome change from the mediocre, apathetic teams we saw under the previous few managers. The “Barça DNA” is alive and well under Xavi, who wants loads of possession and shots on goal, but he likes games played at a very high pace with plenty of intensity. Plenty of people were expecting a copy of Pep Guardiola since the two are so close and Xavi was such a key to Pep’s system at Barça, but Xavi is proving he’s his own man and wants football played in his own way. I have high hopes for the team and think he’ll be a very successful manager, and he gets better and better with every game as every young manager should. The team’s performances reflect that, and if he’s given time he could make a real mark on the club. But we all know how the game goes, and if he doesn’t win this season after the massive investment made, questions will and should be asked. There’s major pressure, but he has the type of personality that welcomes pressure and thrives under it. I’m a fan.
Q: What are Barca’s strengths and weaknesses? Who should Inter keep a special eye on and who could the Nerazzurri take advantage of?
A: The strength is the intensity. The team doesn’t work if it doesn’t play at 100%, and thankfully they do it pretty much every game. When they press high and move the ball quickly between the lines, they are virtually unstoppable. But when their possession game gets stuck in mud, especially against teams that “park the bus”, they are slow and lack creativity in the final third. They also take loads of risks with their high pressing and play a very high line, so good counter-attacking teams can create chances quite easily if they manage to break the press. If they were facing Conte’s Inter, I would be very worried about these two games. But with Inzaghi looking to keep the ball a little more and play at a more deliberate pace, they’ll have a bit of trouble breaking down the Barça defense and could leave themselves open to the counter. But if Inzaghi decides to adapt a little more and go to more of a counter-attacking plan, they could cause plenty of trouble, especially with Lautaro Martínez running in behind a Barça defense missing their two best center-backs due to injury.
Q: And lastly, what’s your prediction for Tuesday?
A: 2-2 draw. I’m not very optimistic because of the injuries at the back, and coming into the season I’m hoping for 4 points against Inter to have a chance in the group. I think we’ll win at Camp Nou, so getting a point at San Siro won’t be the worst thing in the world.