Barcelona, Messi and Enrique: What's gone wrong?
Once upon a time, Barcelona were held up as the model to follow in football.
Their dedication to an ambitious style of play, the influence of a revolutionary manager and an unrivalled trophy haul led to admiration well beyond the shores of Catalonia. These days, though, they dominate headlines for very different reasons.
Performances on the pitch are no longer up to the standards of old, the trophies are starting to dry up, a transfer ban will stop them signing players until 2016, and in-fighting has led to early elections.
To cap it all, there is even talk that Lionel Messi might want to leave.
What's gone wrong?
Only a few years ago, it seemed Barcelona could do no wrong.
Fourteen trophies won under Pep Guardiola with an exhilarating brand of football ensured the Catalans were regularly hailed as the best team in the world, while a regular supply of bright, young academy players suggested the future was in safe hands.
But things have taken a turn for the worse. Not a single major honour was won by Barça in 2014, while Atlético Madrid claimed the Spanish league at the Nou Camp on the last day of the season.
More damning still, the Blaugrana had to look on as Atletico and Real Madrid fought out an all La Liga Champions League final in Lisbon.
In response, Barcelona spent big, investing well over £100m on players ranging from goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards. Above all, they invested in Luis Suarez, paying around £75m for the Premier League's top scorer.
Yet despite the new names, many of the old problems persist, with Barça still struggling to raise their game to the heady levels of old.
Matters off the pitch haven't helped. Resignations, sackings, fall-outs and in-fighting have all marred the club in recent months, while a transfer ban, imposed after the club breached rules on signing international players under the age of 18, prevents them from signing players until 2016.
How bad is it?
On paper, Barcelona's position as second in La Liga looks positive enough, as does their presence in the knockout stage of the Copa del Rey and Champions League.
The devil is in the detail, however. Performances have been poor, particularly against the toughest opponents, and, at a club that demands good football just as much as good results, fans have not been satisfied.
Unable to sign players in an effort to improve displays, Barcelona have to work with the tools they have - and that means looking to their famed youth academy for support.
Even the fabled Barça school of football isn't without its issues these days, however. The club's B team, whose sole purpose is to supply players to the senior side, sit one point above relegation from the Spanish Second Division.
Talent is certainly there, but there are worries that it is being mismanaged - and that could soon have an impact further up the food chain.
Why the exit of two club icons?
The tense atmosphere has only been worsened by the departure of Andoni Zubizarreta and Carles Puyol.
Zubizarreta was Barça's goalkeeper when they won their first European Cup in 1992 and had been working as director of football since 2010. On Sunday, he was sacked: a mixed record in the transfer market coupled with the need for a sacrificial lamb ensuring his time was up.
Zubizarreta's departure was followed the same day by the exit of his understudy, iconic former defender Puyol.
Captain of the club through the most successful period in its history, he had already decided to leave, but the timing of his announcement turned the move into a gesture of solidarity with his superior.
Both departures only served to increase the focus on the club's president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, who had already been suffering in the wake of diminishing returns on the field.
Pushed by critical voices within his own board of directors, he has decided to call elections this summer one year ahead of schedule.
In all likelihood, the 51-year-old entrepreneur and engineer will have to take on Joan Laporta, who oversaw the Blaugrana's golden era in the mid 2000s and is expected to run for presidency again.
Could Lionel Messi really leave?
Perhaps the biggest concern for supporters is the prospect of losing their best player and talisman, Messi.
The Argentine's answers have grown increasingly ambiguous when questioned on his long-term future at the club, while stories of a training ground confrontation with Luis Enrique - that neither the manager nor Bartomeu have denied - suggest something is not right.
|La Liga top scorer: 258|
|Barcelona's top goalscorer: 378|
|Champions League top scorer: 75|
|Most goals in a La Liga season: 50|
|Most consecutive La Liga matches scored in: 21|
|Most goals in a season: 73|
|Most La Liga hat-tricks in a season: 8|
|Most goals in a calendar year: 91|
The plot thickened further, when on the same day news of his fall-out with Enrique emerged, Messi mischievously decided to follow Chelsea and Blues players Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois on Instagram.
That may sound trivial, but murmurs that the London club are interested in signing the Argentine have been around for some time.
In reality, the prospect of another club signing Messi are slim, not least because of his 200m euros (£156.7m) buyout clause on a contract that runs until 2018.
More probable is that his actions were an attempt to speed up the process of change that many feel the club needs. With elections now called, it may well have worked.
Is Enrique the right coach?
One change that may well arrive sooner is the manager. A club icon in his playing days and a successful former B team coach, Enrique was hailed as the man to bring 'intensity' back to Barcelona when he arrived last summer, but so far he has failed to bring quality football along with it.
Defeats in big games against Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, along with a bizarre refusal to repeat the same starting line-up twice have seen his status slip among supporters.
|Barcelona under Enrique - in all competitions|
For the moment, the club insist he has their backing. With elections now on the agenda however, a change of coach may be the only calculated risk left to get voters on side should they continue to prove disgruntled.
Comparisons between his current situation and his failed stint at Roma in 2011 are increasingly frequent. That year, the Italians finished seventh, failing to qualify for either the Champions League or Europa League, a hint that his methods may not be suitable at bigger clubs.
What does the media think?
The opinion of the local press is particularly important and, at the moment, neither Enrique nor the club's board of directors are popular.
Barcelona has two main daily sports papers that are consumed on a tabloid-like scale and their voice can often sway public opinion.
One particularly telling headline this week read: "This club will self-destruct in 3,2,1…"
A number of popular radio programs spend an increasing amount of their time debating the perceived incompetency of Barca both on and off the pitch, too.
What does the future hold?
Everything changes with elections on the table. Any act carried out by the Barcelona board henceforth can be seen as part of pre-electoral campaigning - and that means populism will be difficult to resist.
In the long-term, that could mean sacking Enrique should performances fail to improve, but a more imminent move will be bringing in a figure of importance from the club's past to fill the vacant sporting director role.
The best way to try and stabilise the situation would, of course, be by delivering convincing performances on the pitch, but the fixture list in the coming months does not bode well.
Atlético Madrid, who have just beaten Real Madrid 2-0 in their Copa del Rey last-16 first-leg tie, come to the Nou Camp this Sunday, while Manchester City lie in wait in the Champions League. In the cup, either a Clasico encounter or further confrontation with Atlético awaits in the next round. An already poor situation could quickly deteriorate further.
Even if Barcelona come out of those fixtures relatively unscathed, it is still unlikely to suppress public opinion for too long.
The Catalans may never return to the heady heights of the Guardiola era, but it is the speed with which they have fallen that stands out the most. Dragging them back to the top will be a huge challenge.