By Joseph Wilson, Associated Press
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi has the support of new signing Antoine Griezmann in attack as Barcelona starts the new season with one mission: to lift the Champions League trophy again and end a five-year drought.
Barcelona has won consecutive Spanish league titles and dominated with eight titles in the past 11 years.
But after back-to-back second-leg collapses in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Barcelona's players — and above all coach Ernesto Valverde — are under immense pressure to reclaim that status as the best in Europe.
Even though Messi has changed the history of the Spanish club by leading it to 34 trophies, including 10 Spanish league crowns, some fans had started to complain the club has not done enough to provide him with the support he needs to fully exploit his unparalleled talent.
Messi continues to churn out 50-goal seasons, but Barcelona hasn't won the Champions League since 2015, when the Argentine great claimed his fourth European crown with Barca.
Now, he has the help of Griezmann, who was instrumental in France winning the World Cup last summer and has joined from Spanish rival Atlético Madrid to link up with Messi and Luis Suárez in a potentially formidable forward line.
"I believe in this squad, in these players and this coaching staff," Messi told Barcelona's fans at a preseason match at Camp Nou Stadium. "I have no doubt that together we will again fight to win it all."
Messi is now 32 years old, and even though he hasn't lost a step and has improved his passing, vision and leadership skills with each season, the clock is ticking on how long he can sustain his exceptional level of performance.
Feeling that pressure, Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu agreed to two transfers that will potentially cost the club over 200 million euros for a pair of players the club believes will be difference-makers.
Forward Griezmann and Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong will be expected to make an immediate impact for Barcelona this season.
The 28-year-old Griezmann arrived after Barcelona triggered his 120-million-euro ($134-million) buyout clause to free him from Atlético. He should add even more fire power up front after Messi and Suárez combined for 76 goals last season.
Griezmann's departure from Atlético will also hurt Barcelona's biggest rival in the Spanish league in recent years. Atlético was runner-up to Barcelona the last two seasons.
De Jong is Barcelona's hope for now and for the future. At 22, he arrives after a breakout campaign with Ajax, which made it to the Champions League semifinals after upsetting both Real Madrid and Juventus.
Barcelona believes De Jong can become its leading playmaker in a midfield that has taken a step back since the exits of greats Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta.
ANOTHER CHANCE FOR COUTINHO?
Barring a last-minute transfer before the end of the summer market on Sept. 2, Philippe Coutinho will get another chance to win over Barcelona's supporters after failing to live up to expectations from a club-record transfer from Liverpool worth 160 million euros (then $192 million) in 2017.
The Brazil playmaker has scored 21 goals in 75 appearances for Barcelona but has been criticized by fans for not playing his best in decisive games.
A poor start to the season would only rekindle speculation that his days at Camp Nou are numbered.
Ousmane Dembele is in a similar position of needing to reset after a disappointing end to last season.
Dembele has shown spectacular flashes of talent but the speedy 22-year-old winger has also been plagued by injuries. His challenge now is to remain healthy so he can blossom into the future star Barcelona thinks he can become.
COACH YET TO CONVINCE
Valverde has an almost impeccable record in the Spanish league. He has led Barcelona to consecutive titles after losing only four of 76 matches in those combined league campaigns.
But Valverde has been unable to avoid stunning setbacks in the Champions League. Barcelona lost 3-0 at Roma, squandering a 4-1 first-leg win, in the 2018 quarterfinals, and relived the nightmare last year when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit by crushing Barcelona 4-0 in their semifinal second leg.
Barcelona also came up short in last season's Copa del Rey Final, losing 2-1 to Valencia.
Club president Bartomeu has been unflinching in his backing of Valverde. But the former Athletic Bilbao manager has little margin left and any rough patch would again put his job in danger.
Barcelona opens its league defense at Bilbao on Friday, when Messi will likely not play after picking up a right calf strain on the first day of practice for the new season.