Amid transfer drama, Barcelona and Juventus start anew in ICC
Both powerhouse clubs won silverware last spring but enter pre-season hungry for more after falling short of Europe’s top prize
HARRISON, N.J. — Ernesto Valverde could only grin. After four different reporters found ways to ask about Neymar’s rumoured exited from Camp Nou, the new Barcelona manager did his best to put that talking point to bed.
“I understand that you insist on the Neymar topic, but there is no need to worry about something where we don’t know if it’s going to happen or not,” Valverde said before an open training session Friday at Red Bull Arena.
“Neymar is not going to leave tomorrow. If anything happens in the future, we’ll see in the future. But for now, there’s no need to worry about it.”
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Transfer talk was, naturally, a common topic for Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri as well. Addressing the media a day after his club sold defensive anchor Leonardo Bonucci to rivals AC Milan, the fourth-year boss acknowledged how this off-season has already reshaped the Serie A outlook.
“This upcoming season it’s not going to be easier,” Allegri said. “Milan has strengthened its club with a tremendous amount of acquisitions, as have Napoli and Roma.
“So we’re going to face difficult opposition this season and we need to prepare.”
But as fans and media fixate on the infinite intrigue of transfer gossip, Barca and Juve find themselves preparing to open pre-season with an International Champions Cup clash Saturday at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
The clubs find themselves in similar situations. Each team claimed silverware last season — Barca the Copa del Rey, Juve the Scudetto and Coppa Italia. And each team concluded 2016-17 with an undeniable sense of dissatisfaction.
For Lionel Messi’s Barca, the standard has been set: Anything short of a Champions League title can be considered a failure.
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But to let Clasico rival Real Madrid claim the Champions League and La Liga? That ended Luis Enrique’s tenure in thoroughly underwhelming fashion, and put the onus on Valverde to swiftly get the Blaugrana back on track.
“I’m here to help in what I can,” Valverde said. “I’m also here to learn, to make progress as a coach. I have to adapt to the players, to their game, but they also have to adapt to me.”
Barca midfielder Sergio Busquets added: “This is my 10th season with the team. The first one we won the treble, and every year we don’t win every important title they say, ‘The generation is over,’ but it’s not like that.
“We know that last year wasn’t the best, but that’s in the past. We left that behind. We have high hopes for this season with our new coach and hopefully we can win many titles this year.”
Juve, on the other hand, had plenty to celebrate. After a sixth straight Serie A title and third straight Coppa Italia triumph, the Old Lady came one match short of the treble — dropping a 4-1 result to Madrid in Cardiff.
Yet coming so close to Champions League glory leaves its own kind of bitter taste. Watching Milan splash the cash on the likes of Bonucci, Franck Kessie, Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu and Andrea Conti has heightened the feeling — even if Juve have made a couple savvy buys of their own.
“At the end of the day, this team should have celebrated the fantastic successes that it had, winning the Scudetto, winning the Coppa Italia,” Allegri said. “I’m pretty disappointed that we did not celebrate those the way that they deserve to be celebrated because we always point to Cardiff.
“The preparation for this season started in Cardiff. Our club has strengthened itself with the acquisition of very important players — the likes of Douglas Costa, of [Wojciech] Szczesny, of [Mattia] De Sciglio.
“We look forward to implementing the same attitude and mentality of winning, and winning another Scudetto and going into the season with a little bit more drive to pick up where we left off in Cardiff.”
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No one will be mistaking Saturday’s match for a competitive encounter. Expect both teams to mix starters with reserves. Expect both teams to wilt in the New Jersey heat and humidity. Expect both teams to make mass substitutions.
But for the past month-and-a-half, these clubs have been thinking what could have been in 2016-17. With Saturday’s contest comes a much-needed clean slate.
“You never take these matches lightly,” De Sciglio said. “They’re never a friendly match.
“You have to come to the pitch with a very competitive spirit, with a spirit of putting forth your best foot and playing well.”