MADRID, March 11- Barcelona host Manchester City in the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Wednesday desperately in need of a good performance to distract attention from a dreadful start to 2014 on and off the field.
When the Catalans were given the hardest draw open to them in a pairing with City back in December, it was a minor setback on what had until then been a season that had exceeded expectations.
Despite being hastily appointed just two weeks before the campaign kicked off as Tito Vilanova was unfortunately forced to resign due to on-going health problems, coach Gerardo Martino oversaw Barca’s best ever start to a La Liga season.
Martino’s first defeat in charge came in the Champions League to a youthful Ajax side in November, but it mattered little as Barca also strolled through to the last 16 as winners of Group H.
However, this year has so far proved to be a more difficult time for the club.
In January, Sandro Rosell resigned as president due to on-going legal action for misappropriation of funds over the controversial signing of Brazilian star Neymar last May.
Rosell had insisted the 22-year-old’s transfer had cost the club 57 million euros ($79 million, £47 million), but the day after his departure Barcelona released figures showing the overall cost of the operation, including a signing bonus for the player, marketing deals and other collaborative agreements, amounted to 86.2 million euros.
The club were then charged with tax fraud over the transfer and paid 13.5 million euros to the Spanish treasury despite protesting that they had not committed any offence.
Those fiscal troubles have now been reflected in the Spanish champions’ performances on the field as Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to lowly Valladolid saw them lose for the third time in six La Liga games.
Barca now trail historical rivals Real Madrid by four points in the title race and still have to travel to Madrid to face Los Blancos in a potential title decider on March 23.
The return of the Champions League does provide some light relief for the embattled Martino.
Barca’s 2-0 win away at the Etihad over City three weeks ago is widely seen as his most impressive result since taking charge and the English side’s visit to the Camp Nou offers the chance to dispel the doubts as merely a dip in form.
“We have lost one game and it seems as if someone has died,” argued Barca forward Alexis Sanchez on Monday.
However, at the moment the club seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next.
Neymar’s arrival has been far more noteworthy for its impact off the field than on it. He has struggled to strike up a partnership with four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi and looks a shadow of the player in a Barca strip compared to his form at international level with Brazil.
It would take an historic collapse for Barca to not progress to the last eight as no side has ever come back from losing 2-0 at home in the Champions League era. Yet, having reached a record six successive semi-finals in the competition, the growing feeling is that Barcelona are a side in transition.
Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes, two of the key figures of the team that has won three Champions Leagues and six La Liga titles over the past decade, have announced they will leave the club at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, the midfield general of that side that conquered Europe, Xavi Hernandez, is now 34 and plagued by injuries that prevent him from having the impact he once did.
The 2-0 deficit may prove to be too big for even the high-scoring City to overcome.
However, they may never have a better opportunity to announce their arrival as a big player on the Champions League stage than landing the knockout blow to the confidence-sapped, four-time European champions at the Camp Nou.