The 2011/12 season was hugely disappointing by Barcelona's standards
Manchester United coach Mike Phelan says "Barcelona are the ones to catch", but are the Blaugrana still the team to beat in Europe? talkSPORT plays devil's advocate and asks whether last season proved that Barca can now be toppled...
The Golden generation isn't getting any younger
At 32, and with an Achilles injury that is unlikely to ever go away, Xavi Hernandez is approaching the twilight of his career. Though Barcelona boast the quality of Cesc Fabregas and Thiago in their ranks, Xavi is arguably irreplaceable, so it's no coincidence that the Catalans almost always suffer in his absence. He's not the only one either. Captain Carles Puyol is battling injury worries of his own, and has struggled to play consistently in recent years. With Puyol and Pique together on the pitch, Barcelona rarely drop points, with the captain in particular playing 56 games for the side without losing, only finally dropping his streak in January 2012. Puyol's positional awareness and tough tackling is only bettered by his ability to raise the standards of the players around him, and as good a defender as Javier Mascherano has developed into, Barcelona's captain is one of a kind. With two of their key players across the midfield and defence edging closer to the end of their careers, it's easy to get worried about how Barca will cope without them.
Real Madrid have reclaimed the league
Real Madrid's well deserved La Liga win last season brought the trophy to the Bernabeu for the first time since 2008, with Los Merengues looking sharper, fitter and hungrier than their old rivals. Real exposed Barca's painfully thin squad, and their better form in pre-season carried on throughout the domestic campaign. In Spain, it's often said that the big two teams go through cycles of dominance, and Real's victory could be the dawn of their own period at the top.
Barca failed to retain the Champions League yet again
Pep Guardiola is an historic coach at the Nou Camp, but even the former Barca number four found one piece of history to be out of his grasp. No team has ever retained the Champions League in its modern incarnation, and Barcelona had two attempts to do so under Guardiola, failing on both occasions. While it could be argued that extenuating circumstances helped Inter in denying the Blaugrana the first time round, it's hard to excuse the most recent occasion, in which Barcelona failed to take their chances, looked exhausted and were out-thought by Chelsea. Questions could perhaps be raised about the levels of motivation within the Barca ranks as a result. After all, when players have won everything available to them on both the domestic and international stage, as is the case with a large section of Barcelona's key men, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the hunger that drives them to achieve their best.
Barcelona lack the funds to adequately reinforce
In the past, Barcelona tended to make at least one, if not two big signings per summer, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Dani Alves and David Villa all arriving for sizeable fees. Those days now seem to be gone, and though Jordi Alba is undoubtedly a good transfer for the Blaugrana, a lack of resources means that Barcelona have been unable to buy stars worthy of their shirt to plug the gap in the centre of defence that so desperately needs filling. That's also particularly worrying when considering that the centre-back position is the one area Barcelona's academy has struggled to produce an adequate candidate for in recent years, and if the replacement can't come from within nor without, the outcome is usually that of a weakened side.
The loss of the Guardiola factor
Many of the problems listed above have been long-standing issues for Barcelona, but luckily for the Catalans, they had a coach capable of drawing that intangible something extra out of his team like blood from a stone. Guardiola's days as boss at Barca are no more however, and while Tito Vilanova could prove to be an excellent coach, it's almost impossible for him to replicate Guardiola's impact. Pep wasn't just a motivator, but a thinker too, and he constantly strived to make sure his side evolved and kept ahead of the chasing pack. Even the Catalan's oft derided switch to 3-4-3 proved a master-stroke on some occasions, particularly when Barcelona's stars were still fairly fresh back in December 2011 and the Blaugrana used the switch in formation to bewilder Real Madrid and run out 3-1 victors at the Bernabeu after going 1-0 down. Guardiola's ability as a tactician is sometimes overlooked, and opponents will fancy facing the Catalans much more now that one of their greatest coaches ever has left the building.
So what does it all mean?
While it's probably too early to say that Barcelona's spell at the top of European football is over, there's no question that there are some huge challenges to overcome if they hope to reclaim their pole position. There's certainly an argument to suggest that their mastery of a particular style of play is still unrivalled, but without trophies, style means little, and without Pep Guardiola at the helm there are uncertain times ahead. Just which team exactly is ready to take over from the Catalans is debatable, but there are plenty poised to seize the opportunity. Are Barcelona still really the team to beat? This year will go a long way to answering the question...
What do you think? Will the likes of City and PSG have too much for Barcelona, or is it just a momentary blip? Who is most likely to topple them if it happens? Comment below and have your say below...