(AP) — Ronald Koeman needs his Barcelona side to win big when it visits Atlético Madrid to have a shot at saving his job.
That is, if he makes it to Saturday.
Two embarrassing losses to start the Champions League have left the Dutch coach under extreme pressure before a trip to the capital to face the Spanish league’s titleholder.
Losing 3-0 to Bayern Munich, a European juggernaut, two weeks ago was humbling. But to follow that up with another 3-0 loss at Benfica — a team it had not lost to since 1961 — on Wednesday may be too much for the club’s leadership to take.
Koeman spoke after the match in Lisbon like a man who knew his time at Camp Nou could be counted in days, if not hours.
“As for my future, I cannot say anything because I don’t know what the club thinks about it,” Koeman said. “It is not in my hands. We will see . . . at the end, the guilty party is the coach.”
Club president Joan Laporta and Koeman have been at odds since Laporta returned to run the club last March. Laporta went as far as to look for another coach in the offseason before finally settling on keeping Koeman for the second year of his contract.
Laporta and Koeman have shared the need to convince Barcelona’s fans to lower expectations since the club was saddled with over a billion euros in debt and unable to pay Lionel Messi’s wages. But the team has hit new lows that even with the exit of the almighty Messi are difficult to take.
A sixth-place standing in the Spanish league has almost become respectable for the former champions compared to its dismal showing in the Champions League.
Barcelona is in last place of Group E and at risk of not making the knockout rounds for the first time in 20 years. Most worryingly, a Barcelona team that prides itself on always delivering attacking soccer has not even generated a shot on target in 180 minutes.
Never shy to point out his team’s shortcomings, nor spare his players from what he considers just criticism, Koeman spread some of the blame.
“Everyone knows the problem of Barcelona today,” he said. “The team is not the same as it was for years. We saw that in today’s game. It is crystal clear. We have lost players who made the difference . . . I am not saying that we have to accept it or that I have no responsibility, but in today’s game we should have gotten more from our players.”
Koeman’s tactics against Benfica, however, were also questionable. Instead of replacing Gerard Pique with another defender when he picked up an early yellow card, Koeman shifted Frenkie de Jong into his backline. Barcelona suffered even more trying to set up its forwards without De Jong in a creative role.
When asked if he thought the team needed a new manager, De Jong responded with a curt “No.”
“You can only get out of this situation if you stay united and work together,” the Netherlands midfielder said.
Atlético was having its own troubles before Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suárez — both former Barcelona players the club could not afford to pay — scored late to fight back 2-1 at AC Milan on Tuesday.
The match at Wanda Metropolitano will come before a weeklong international break, offering Barcelona a window to make a coaching change if desired.
Former midfielder Xavi Hernández has long been tagged as a future Barcelona coach, while Spanish media speculates that Belgium manager Roberto Martínez and former Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo could be in the running. Laporta said during his presentation this summer that sports director Jordi Cruyff could also be used as a “wild card in an emergency.”
Beyond the team’s immediate struggles, Barcelona was dealt a harder long-term blow by the Spanish league hours before it lost at Benfica.
Barcelona’s new salary cap has been slashed to 97 million euros ($113 million), about 285 million euros ($334 million) less than a year ago and seven times smaller than that of Real Madrid, due to losses it incurred by the poor management of Laporta’s predecessors and the economic impact of the pandemic.
So Koeman or not, the glory days of Barcelona won’t likely be coming back soon.