Barcelona take leap into the unknown after summer of change

In this Nov. 5, 2019 file photo, Barcelona's Lionel Messi reacts during a Champions League Group F soccer match against Slavia Praha at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain. Lionel Messi has told Barcelona he wants to leave the club after nearly two decades with the Spanish giants. The club has confirmed that the Argentina great has sent a note expressing his desire to leave. The announcement comes 11 days after Barcelona's humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals, one of the worst in the player's career and in the club's history. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort, File)

BARCELONA (Reuters) – After selling five key players and employing a coach more than happy to take on the established order, Barcelona begin their La Liga campaign at home to Villarreal on Sunday in unchartered territory.

Seething from their 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and a first trophyless campaign since 2007-08, Barca have made some big changes and will line up with a very different side to the one that ambled through last season.

Luis Suarez, their second top scorer last season and third all-time marksman, has been handed to title rivals Atletico Madrid, while Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal have also been moved on for next to nothing.

Nelson Semedo and Arthur Melo have also made way despite being hailed as long-term solutions not long ago, while the only new arrival so far is midfielder Miralem Pjanic from Juventus, 30, whose best days seem to have passed.

New coach Ronald Koeman had warned of Barca’s need to freshen up their squad long before he was appointed and has led the clear-out, calling Suarez and Vidal to tell them they were no longer wanted while urging academy graduate Riqui Puig to look for a loan move.

The Dutchman, one of Barca’s greatest ever players, has never been afraid of rocking the boat and will look to exert his authority on a dressing room used to getting its own way.

Chief among Koeman’s objectives is to get the team fitter and stronger, while he has also hinted at a different style of play to the plan centred on long periods of possession which Quique Setien unsuccessfully tried to restore last season.

The best news in a dreadful close season, though, was Lionel Messi’s decision to end his standoff with the club after threatening to leave.

“I couldn’t imagine a Barca without Leo and I crossed my fingers hoping he would stay. Now I think he has the same enthusiasm and ambition as always,” said Barca player Sergi Roberto.

Messi appeared to be playing a deeper role in Barca’s pre-season games, behind Antoine Griezmann, a relative flop last season, and Ousmane Dembele, who missed the majority of the last campaign injured.

There is also more excitement about 17-year-old forward Ansu Fati after a thrilling breakthrough campaign.

Elsewhere in La Liga, champions Real Madrid play Real Betis at home after an uninspiring goalless draw with Real Sociedad in their first game.

Atletico Madrid host in-form Granada in their first game but will be without coach Diego Simeone as he is still isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.