BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With Lionel Messi still around, Ronald Koeman looks ready to make some brave decisions to rejuvenate Barcelona.
It could even mean dispensing with two of Messi’s closest confidants.
The new manager left veterans Luis Suárez and Arturo Vidal off his squad which beat third-tier club Gimnàstic de Tarragona 3-1 in a friendly on Saturday, Barcelona’s first match since Koeman took over last month.
Instead, the 25-man list included several reserve team players.
While Vidal has been a valuable midfielder, Suárez has been an untouchable component of the team since his arrival in 2014. The Uruguay striker has been the best attack partner of Messi’s, and his 198 goals make him the club’s third all-time leading scorer. Suárez and his family are neighbors and close friends of Messi, his wife, and children.
Koeman has been tasked by the club to carry out “profound changes” that are clearly needed after Barcelona ended last season humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Suárez and Vidal are 33 years old and neither are in Koeman’s plans, according to Spanish media.
Koeman has reportedly told both players their tenures at Barcelona are over. Local media speculate Suárez could be heading to Juventus and Vidal to Inter Milan.
The message behind leaving them off the squad this weekend looks clear: If they do end up staying, they will have to compete with younger players to be starters again.
Shortly before the match Vidal posted a photo on Twitter of himself with sunglasses on and shirtless with the message, “Mode: Relax.”
Barcelona’s historic defeat to Bayern was the latest collapse the side has suffered at the end of recent seasons, so Koeman is putting emphasis on fitness and work ethic to change the team’s culture of complacence and increasing reliance on Messi to win games.
Talking on Friday about the preseason, Koeman said, “My players are showing effort, focus and intensity, and that is important because for me you train like you play.”
After the game Koeman was also careful to laud Messi, who returned to practice this week after having lost his power struggle with the club over his desire to leave. After the club refused to let him go for free, Messi publicly pledged he would finish the final year of his contract with the same commitment to winning.
“(Messi) has shown the same attitude from the very first day. He has trained well, and even trained on his free day,” Koeman said after the match. “He knows perfectly well he must get in better shape like all his teammates. His talent speaks for itself.”
Messi, who has kept the captaincy despite his dispute with the club, played the first 45 minutes of the friendly.
Koeman was without Ansu Fati after the 17-year-old forward received a hard knock to his right thigh during practice on Friday.
Fati enhanced his breakout season for Barcelona by becoming the youngest scorer in the history of Spain’s national team last weekend in a 4-0 win over Ukraine in the Nations League.
The club friendly was the first chance for forwards Francisco Trincão and Pedro González to play since joining the team.
Ousmane Dembele, who returned to the pitch after his latest injury layoff, scored the opener. Antoine Griezmann added a penalty, as did Philippe Coutinho, who was back at Camp Nou after spending last season on loan at Bayern.
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