The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Barcelona entrusts Enrique with returning club to its old winning ways
MADRID - Barcelona promised change, and delivered it quickly.
By bringing in Luis Enrique as the team's new coach, Barcelona is returning to the philosophy of having a former player in charge after the failed one-year tenure of Gerardo Martino.
The 44-year-old Enrique, who was appointed Monday on a two-year contract, will no doubt be expected to also return the team to its beloved "tiki-taka" style of football — which Martino decided to abandon on Saturday when he opted to leave Xavi Hernandez on the bench in the title-decider against Atletico Madrid.
The Argentine coach opted to play Atletico at its own game, which proved a terrible mistake. A 1-1 draw gave Atletico its first league title in 18 years — and left Barcelona without a major trophy for the first time in six years.
"The league ended and so did many other things," Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said on Saturday.
For Enrique, the biggest task will be to get Lionel Messi back to his best again.
With Messi having a below-par season, Barcelona's brand of football simply didn't work during the second half of the season, when the team took a nosedive.
Messi looked pedestrian on Saturday, a day after becoming the highest paid player in the sport and with silverware on the line.
And the numbers don't lie: Barcelona was better this season without Messi.
Barcelona dropped just five of a possible 54 points through the first 18 rounds of the season as Martino became the first Barcelona coach to start a season unbeaten in his first 20 games in all competitions.
But Barcelona won just 38 of a possible 60 points after Messi returned to play the last 20 games.
Messi wasn't the only problem, though.
The tide turned with a 3-1 loss at Real Sociedad in February, when Martino made it clear he no longer had confidence in a team built around the "tiki-taka" — quick combinations based on keeping possession — inspired by Xavi. This despite the 34-year-old Xavi having helped generate so many successes for club and country.
Against Sociedad, Xavi was on the substitute's bench alongside Cesc Fabregas as the Catalans crumbled with the little used Alex Song in midfield.
Neymar's arrival did not generate the excitement that Barcelona expected from having two of the best players in the world in the same team, with Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo providing much more excitement - and goals - at rival Real Madrid.
Barcelona's decision to live off the success of previous president Joan Laporta's transfers eventually caught up to it, with an already frail defence left without options as Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were sidelined more often than not.
While the off-field troubles certainly distracted the club — from president Sandro Rosell's resignation over tax fraud charges relating to the signing of Neymar to Messi's own problems with the tax authorities — Martino's swift change of tactics led to upheaval.
With Barcelona needing to score against Atletico to retain the title, Martino introduced Xavi instead of a forward late in the game, another indication of how confusion reigned.
With Fabregas reportedly set to be sold in the summer, the DNA that personifies Barca's brand "More than a club" could be in danger.
"An era is over, whether we like it or not. And that's why it pains us so much, because you never want nice things to come to an end," defender Javier Mascherano said. "This club brought a certain style of play to the world and it needs to keep playing that way."
And now, it's up to Enrique to make it happen.
Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP
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