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Barcelona Coach Luis Enrique Announces Next Season

FC Barcelona’s difficult season has claimed its first casualty. Manager Luis Enrique announced on Wednesday that this will be his last season in charge of the Catalan giants.
   Luis Enrique is leaving Barca. (Reuters)

The club’s former winger – who had won a La Liga-Copa del Rey-Champions League treble in his first season in charge in 2014-15, followed by a domestic double last year – declared his intention to leave Barça at a press conference following a simple 6-1 league win over Sporting Gijon.

“I will not be the manager of Barcelona next season,” the 46-year-old Luis Enrique said. “It’s a very difficult decision for me. I’ve thought about it a lot. But I believe that I have to be true to myself. … The way I do this job is why I have to leave. There are very few hours to rest. I need to rest.”

Lucho, as he is nicknamed, had made his announcement to his players first, after informing club president Josep Maria Bartomeu several days ago. He isn’t the first Barça manager to claim something of a burnout as his reason for leaving. Pep Guardiola did the same in 2012, going on a year-long sabbatical.

But Luis Enrique’s job was widely believed to be in peril, especially with his contract running out at the end of the season. While he had been enormously successful in his first two seasons – the club also won the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup on his watch – Barcelona came unstuck this year.

The players and Bartomeu had expressed their faith in Luis Enrique, but indifferent form in La Liga from November through January had allowed Real Madrid to build up a lead. And while Barcelona is the towering favorite to win the Copa del Rey again against Alaves on May 27, that might be the only silverware it hoists this year.

A disheveling 4-0 first-leg loss at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16 has made another European crown all but impossible. That would also make this the first time in 10 seasons that the Catalans fail to reach the quarterfinals.

Yet Barça had been in the midst of a resurgence when Luis Enrique made his announcement. On Sunday, Lionel Messi’s late winner scraped out a key 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid. Wednesday’s win against Gijon – where Luis Enrique began his playing career, incidentally – was one of the most comfortable and convincing in months.

Barcelona had frequently failed to break down teams that press high, costing the Blaugranas an uncharacteristic amount of dropped points. All the same, the league title came back within reach just an hour after Luis Enrique made his decision public. 

A 10-man Real Madrid overcame a 3-1 deficit – and three disallowed Real goals by Alvaro Morata – to salvage a 3-3 draw with Las Palmas, spilling points for a second time in three league games after a 2-1 loss at Valencia on Feb. 22.

The tie by Real vaulted Barça back into the league lead by a point, although the arch-rivals from the capital hold a game in hand.

Several names are already circulating as possible successors for Luis Enrique, including Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, Everton’s Ronald Koeman, Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, Luis Enrique’s assistant Juan Carlos Unzue, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde and Real Sociedad’s Eusebio.

In the meantime, however, Luis Enrique and his team will try to salvage what remains of the season before moving on.
  Bartomeu, who hired Lucho in 2014, now must find a new manager. (AP Photo)

“We accept Luis Enrique’s decision,” Bartomeu said in a statement. “He has been a great coach. Now it is time to end his spell in the best possible way. Luis Enrique has brought us great success and he can still bring us more. The players are motivated to do it.”

Recent history suggests that the remainder of the season under lame-duck managers can swing either way.

Jupp Heynckes won the treble at Bayern Munich in 2013 before making way for Guardiola. But Manchester City’s campaign crumbled when it was announced in January of last year that Manuel Pellegrini was outgoing – also in favor of Guardiola.

Barcelona’s succession will be crucial in preserving a dynasty going on a decade or so. Before Frank Rijkaard took over in 2003, the club burned through four managers in three chaotic seasons.

When Rijkaard’s successor Guardiola left, the two men following him – Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino – lasted just a year apiece, albeit because of health reasons in the since-deceased Vilanova’s case.

Calm is elusive at the best of times at one of the world’s most popular and closely-scrutinized clubs. The smallest blip in form or disturbance in the locker room or club governance is quickly blown into an all-out crisis at Barcelona. It takes deft management to isolate the players – and results – from the theater that plays on and around the team.

For the next three months, Luis Enrique will do his best to pull a league title out of the fire and claim a third double in three years. And then it will all be someone else’s problem.

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