With all the grumblings surrounding Lionel Messi and his rows within the Barcelona camp, it's perhaps the worst time for new coach Quique Setien to have an emotional return to Real Betis on Sunday.
Messi was backed into 8/1 to join Manchester City after his latest row with Eric Abidal, and that's led to big question marks over his future that will continue on Sunday.
Sunday’s trip to Real Betis should be an emotional occasion for new Barcelona coach Setien, and many of the home team's players and fans, given their rollercoaster two seasons together at the Benito Villamarin.
It was as Betis coach that Setien really showed how his purist coaching ideas could work successfully towards the top of the LaLiga standings, guiding the verdiblanco side to sixth place and Europa League qualification in his first campaign in charge in 2017/18.
The former Lugo and Las Palmas coach made a real connection with Betis’ talented ball players such as Sergio Canales, Joaquin Sanchez and ex-Barça defender Marc Bartra. Setien's attack-minded side were capable of controlling games through possession while also exciting their fans, with January 2018's amazing 5-3 LaLiga victory at neighbours Sevilla a standout performance. 60 goals scored and 61 conceded in their 38 games through that first campaign kept supporters on the edge of their seats throughout.
There were high hopes that Betis could build on this success, and even return to the Champions League for the first time in over a decade. However, everything then did not go entirely to plan during 2018/19, with injuries, squad balance and tactical challenges all factors as the team’s results dipped considerably.
Setien’s Betis were still capable of some big performances, such as a thrilling 4-3 win at the Camp Nou and a second consecutive victory away at Real Madrid. But their goals scored total for dropped to 44 and the team were inconsistent, suffering some heavy defeats to teams like Leganes and Levante, while finishing tenth in the table.
The Cantabrian gained admirers by refusing to compromise his coaching principles, and Betis’ players remained firmly behind a boss who trusted so much in their ability and nerve. But there was also a feeling of an era coming to an end, and the club’s board decided to replace him with current coach Joan Francesc Ferrer ‘Rubi,’ who worked as an assistant coach at the Camp Nou during 203/14.
All of which sets everything up nicely for Sunday evening’s reunion. Since replacing Ernesto Valverde as Barça coach in mid-January, Setien has won both his home LaLiga games in charge against Granada and Levante, while suffering a setback with a 0-2 defeat at in-form Valencia.
Barca’s players are taking on board the tactical concepts of their new boss, with the process aided by the influence of blaugrana legend Johan Cruyff on Setien’s ideas. The initial signs are promising, and Barca captain Lionel Messi appeared to enjoy a slightly new role during last weekend’s 2-1 win at home to Levante. There remains a feeling however that coach and squad are still getting to know each other and looking to strike the right balance.
Barça won 4-0 and 5-1 on their two visits to the Benito Villamarin during Setien's time as verdiblanco coach. A similar result on Sunday would be welcomed by blaugrana fans concerned at their team's inconsistent away record in LaLiga this season. But Betis supporters know from experience that anything is possible on this type of occasion.
Sky TV and Virgin TV customers across the UK can watch Real Betis vs Barcelona this Sunday at 8pm GMT on LaLigaTV. LaLigaTV is the first dedicated channel to broadcast every live match and provide 24/7 access to “All of LaLiga, All in one place.”