Barcelona look to erase memories of ‘annus horribilis’


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This year may end on a high note for Barcelona, but 2014 has been awful for the Catalans so far.

The Neymar transfer scandal which led to the club president stepping down hit the club in January, a few months before a transfer ban was implemented in March relating to the signing of under 18 players.

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When it looked like they couldn't sign any more players including ones they'd lined up like goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the club successfully appealed, but we'll come to that.

An awful April saw them lose the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid. Tragically, they also lost their former manager Tito Vilanova to cancer, aged just 45.

Lionel Messi's form dipped and he became implicated in tax evasion for which he'll likely go to court. Barça lost their status as Spanish champions as their league season petered out in poor form and uninspiring football.

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It was a surprise that they were still in contention for the league title on the final day of the season, when they saw Atletico Madrid crowned champions in Camp Nou. Barca's fans booed them off the pitch, triggering the sales of perceived underperforming players Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez. It was the first year in six that Barca finished without a trophy.

Long time club captain Carles Puyol finally retired, long standing goalkeeper Victor Valdes ruptured his cruciate ligament in his final game for the club before a summer transfer which never happened after suitors Monaco understandably pulled out. Real Madrid won the Champions League, a competition Barça were eliminated from by another Madrid side, Atletico.

To pour oil on troubled waters, Barça then signed Luis Suarez. He's apologised for his latest biting episode and says it won't happen again. We've seen apologies from Suarez before, but a strike force of Messi, Neymar and Suarez will not only be familiar with various types of court rooms, but could be the best in the world. Better even than Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Barca's season starts on Sunday with a home game against an Elche side they met in the penultimate game of last season. Had Barca beaten the promoted team, they would have won the league with that final draw to Atletico. Instead, they played out a turgid 0-0 draw as if they couldn't wait for the campaign to end.

Under new boss Luis Enrique, Barça will hope to be reinvigorated against Elche. Anything but a victory and grumbles will begin against the new manager, just as they started after Pep Guardiola took a few games to find his feet when he took charge in 2008. Enrique is a driven, talented man who knows the club and all its foibles well. He replaces an outsider, Tata Martino, who couldn't be expected to get to grips with planet Barça and, ultimately, didn't. He even confessed that he simply wasn't enjoying the job earlier in the year.

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Enrique is different. He knows he'll have to pick his fights and is aware of the political issues, those permanently shifting plates of power. He was a legend as a player and performed well in three years in charge of Barça B, before a mixed spell at AS Roma and a successful one last season at Celta Vigo.

He cuts an impressive figure, but he inherits heavy hangovers from the previous regime.

While Suarez knows when he'll return to start his Barça career, Messi's tax issue hasn't been cleared up. Neymar's transfer scandal still lingers and Barça's appeal over the transfer ban was this week rejected by FIFA.

The club will not be able to sign players in January or in the summer of 2015. Barça knew what they did was wrong, the alleged offences relating to the signing of 10 under-age foreign players between 2009-2010. Barça tried to change the rules at the time, but that was like campaigning for the speed limit to be raised to 90 mph while driving at 90.

Barça pleaded innocence to the FIFA charges in a 600-word statement that talked of the excellent work they do in educating young players and helping them turn into fine young men. That’s true, yet it skirts the issue. Because the Spanish champions broke the rules around FIFA’s qualifying criteria for signing young players.

The club had launched a new appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland - a place Suarez now knows well - but that appeal was rejected and on Wednesday FIFA announced a fine and transfer ban for the next two transfer windows.

Fifa said in their statement: “FC Barcelona is to serve a transfer ban which will see the club prevented from registering any players at both national and international level for two complete and consecutive transfer periods, starting with the next registration period (January 2015).”

Barça will appeal again and the feeling in Catalonia remains one of injustice, that this is an attack on their famed (and hugely successful) Masia youth system. The club's statement concerning the latest ban read:

“FC Barcelona may not in any way share a resolution that is an affront to the spirit of our Masia, a world renowned example of academic, human and sporting education.”

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Never slow to detect a conspiracy, fans lofted a massive ‘Don’t Touch The Masia’ flag when the original ban was announced. More flags are likely, with the club's support.

The ban remains for now. Knowing that they had contravened the regulations, Barça have been busy in the transfer window and have spent €153 million so far in the close season, more than in any other in the club's history, stocking up on players in case they have to go 12 months without being able to do that.

More players are likely to come before the transfer window closes, with Atletico's Koke linked and Sao Paulo attacking defender Douglas Pereira having already signed according to his club president in Brazil. He'll stay in Brazil for a year and then move to Barcelona - a way around the ban as he'll have been signed in 2014.

Barça boast an exceptional squad supplemented by emerging 18-year-olds like Alen Halilovic, the Croatian attacking midfielder and Munir El Haddadi, who was top scorer in UEFA’s youth league last season. He was also top scorer for Barça in pre-season.

Can new boss Enrique get them playing and winning as the fans demand? Can the club enjoy some calm after their annus horribilis. We're about to find out.

By Andy Mitten - on Twitter @AndyMitten

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