Barcelona on the verge of an exodus
With all the furore surrounding the future of Brazilian star Ronaldinho, it's easy to miss the fact that the Blaugrana have had yet another disappointing season in La Liga.
Nine points off current leaders Real Madrid, Barcelona have been shockingly inconsistent in this campaign, especially for a side who have such a wealth of talent at their disposal.
In serious danger of missing out on second spot to an in-form Villarreal side, the next few weeks could decide the future of head coach Frank Rijkaard and many of the players at the club for next season.
Not only do Barcelona have a crucially important pair of fixtures against Manchester United in the Champions League to contend with, they also have the potential turbulence of the El Clásico with Madrid in May. The result may be of little consequence as the title could quite easily be decided by then, but a poor performance against their biggest rivals could precipitate a clear-out of gigantic proportions.
Ronaldinho, the club's marquee player in recent years, has found himself constantly sidelined and the subject of transfer speculation for most of Europe's elite (and Manchester City too). Now the Brazilian seems to have his heart set on a move to Milan, although whether it's Inter or AC remains to be seen; and, for the first time since his arrival in Spain, Barca are happy to let him go.
The money they get for the twice named FIFA World Player of the Year will almost certainly go towards rebuilding the squad, but the Brazilian will not be the only high profile name leaving the Nou Camp.
Gianluca Zambrotta's inability to adapt to the Spanish game could see him return to Italy, with AC Milan and former club Juventus showing interest. The full-back is one of the most talented defenders in the world game on his day, but after failing to settle, a decent chunk of his transfer fee could go towards a deal for the highly-rated Daniel Alves, who Barca are keen to steal away from under the noses of Madrid.
Midfielder Deco may also have played his last game in the famous shirt, as his rapidly expiring contract looks no closer to getting an extension. Blunted by the emergence of Andreas Iniesta, the Portuguese is second choice behind the likes of Xavi and Yaya Toure and has been used sparingly in the current campaign. He'll have no shortage of suitors.
Up front, having got Thierry Henry on the cheap from Arsenal at a mere £16million, Barca wasted little time in making the Frenchman unhappy by playing him out on the left instead of as a central striker. As a result, it would seem that a bid of around a similar figure would pave his way out of the club, with Newcastle ready to bring the once prolific striker back to England.
And the list doesn't end there. A host of players look unlikely to earn new deals at the Nou Camp, with a combination of age, poor form and money playing a part. The forgotten man of the club, Santiago Ezquerro, is certain to leave, while Brazilian midfielder Edmílson has done himself no favours by revealing a rift in the dressing room and is out of contract soon. Oleguer, who formed part of the solid defence of 2005/06, is also out of favour and could move on, along with Lilian Thuram and Sylvinho.
Undoubtedly, a spine of Carlos Puyol, Xavi, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o suggest that Barcelona will still be challenging for honours next season, but in handling what could be a squad-sapping exodus, there will have to be some high-profile replacements coming in.
Johan Cruyff's influence could see Ajax striker Klass-Jan Huntelaar arrive, while Barca director Txiki Beguiristain has already been seen scouting Lyon's young star Karim Benzema, who penned an extra year's extension to his current deal at the Stade de Gerland last month. Both players would make great replacements for Henry and, with youth on their side, could embody a shift in the club's reliance on experienced stars.
Already pointing to the future with the likes of Bojan Krkic and Giovani Dos Santos, Barca have also been linked with Valencia winger David Silva. With Los Che failing so miserably in the league, the 22-year-old could be part of a migration of his own and with Barca in need of a left-footed wideman, could fit the bill perfectly.
To firm up the defence, Racing Santander's Argentine Ezequiel Garay seemed on the verge of sealing a move to the Nou Camp before the Catalans pulled out and could still be set on a move. Creating a stir around Europe with his dead-ball skills and towering defensive performances, Real Madrid and Man Utd are now rumoured to be interested in the 21-year-old. Certainly, the defender has outgrown his current surroundings and Barca would do well to replace the likes of Thuram and Oleguer with younger blood.
What is clear is that something has to change and, with Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez linked with the club, the biggest loss of all could come in the form of Rijkaard. Viewed as a scapegoat for the team's inconsistent performances over the past year, Rijkaard has come under continual fire for his treatment of key players and his position is not safe by any means.
With speculation over the future of Avram Grant at Chelsea, Rijkaard could end up at Stamford Bridge next season, which would be a step in the right direction for many of the Barca fans who have booed their boss' decisions in recent games.
For Rijkaard himself, a move out of the Barca hotseat wouldn't be the worst move for his career. There is a feeling that he is stagnating in his current role and taking his attacking football philosophy to England could enhance a reputation which would take a blow after another trophyless season.
Even Champions League success this campaign may not save him. With the winds of change ready to blow through the club over the summer, the Catalan hierarchy may feel it's time to cut the cord. They have shown ruthlessness with a declining Ronaldinho and Rijkaard seems likely to follow a host of other names out of the club.
If the board back up their decision by loosening the purse strings as well, a new, youthful, vibrant Barcelona side could be a worrying proposition for the rest of Europe next season. Another year left trailing in the wake of Real Madrid just doesn't bear thinking about for the Catalans.