The last time we qualified for Champions League football, we lost to Monaco in a playoff back in 2016-2017. In a fitting turn of fate it was also Monaco who was denied entry into next year’s Champions League by us winning the Europa League. Our last appearance in the group stage game in 2011-2012, and we all remember how that season went. The group was incredibly difficult, as we faced Napoli, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich, and nothing else went right that year, either.
Going into next year’s competition, as Europa League winners, we will be in pot one of the group stage draw. What that means is that we will be guaranteed to avoid Man City, Atleti (and really all other Spanish teams), Inter, Bayern Munich, Lille, and Sporting. If Chelsea win the Champions League, we’ll play them in the Super Cup but avoid them in the group stage. If City win the UCL, I believe the last pot one slot goes to Ajax as Champions of the Dutch Eredivisie.
In general, we theoretically have an easier time in the draw. Pot two will include both Real Madrid, Sevilla, and Barca, who we can’t draw, and will also contain Juventus, PSG, Man United, and Liverpool- one of whom we certainly will have to face. If Chelsea wins the CL, there will be two English teams in both pots one and two, and that’ll make us more likely to draw United or LFC.
If you’re like me, you’re looking at this prospect and saying ‘oh, our roster needs some help.’ Here are the positions and types of moves I expect from the club this summer.
This is the leading question that in many ways will determine all others. Does Pau Torres leave now, or does he stay to play with his hometown club in the Champions League for one season first? If reports are to be believed, Manchester United is fairly willing to hit his clause this summer, so that move would hang on whether he wants it. We could certainly not hold it against him if he departed, and winning the Europa League plus the impending Euros for Spain where he is likely to be a starter will raise his profile significantly. Worth noting that Capoue on the team bus openly petitioned the club to do everything they can to keep Pau and Gerard. I’m sure they will.
If he moves, the most glaring need immediately becomes a high quality CB. As I look at other places in the squad, I see us probably trying to trim one left back off the roster (we currently have four between Pedraza, Estupinan, Costa, and Moreno) and quite possibly letting one of our CM/DM players go. Capoue, Iborre, and Coquelin are all in their 30s and all play in similar areas on the pitch. I like all three players but I think we have to make the position younger.
One final possible departure of note, I do believe if the club can find a way to move Bacca’s contract off the books they will. Fer is ready to step up and Bacca is one of the highest paid players on the side while no longer producing at that level consistently.
The first piece of business should be exercising the buy option on Juan Foyth. He’s presently the best right back we have and how solid he is defensively seems to give Samu Chukwueze the license to be his attacking best down the right. It’s 15m and I think that’s a steal for a RB who is ready to play Champions League football.
Manu Morlanes, remember him? He had an excellent season at Almeria on a team that is in the promotion playoff. He’s the main reason I think we will move on from one of the older CMs. It’s possible, of course, that Almeria win promotion and then want him to stay for another year and if that’s the case I don’t mind terribly him getting a ton of La Liga minutes on loan. That said, I think he’s ready for another crack at the first team and I wouldn’t want to see his development inhibited. Even if he goes on loan, letting go of one of the older CMs and signing someone who is young and talented at the position would be a good thing. The injury record of our current crew at that position is daunting.
While we are on the subject, not inhibiting the growth of young players is a big deal for me this summer. It’s the main reason I want Bacca to ride into the sunset (Fer), it’s the main reason I don’t want to sign another winger (Pino). Alex Baena should probably go on loan, but getting this next generation of cantenaro’s ready is a big priority of mine and I think will be a priority of the club’s as well.
Regardless of whether Pau leaves, we do need another CB. With Foyth’s emergence as a right back, I think it leaves us a man short in terms of reliable CB options. I don’t mind Ramiro Funes Mori as a fourth choice CB, but if we are going to be playing Champions League football I don’t want to have to rely on Albiol’s aging legs for as many minutes as we have the last two seasons. The man is a marvel, but he can’t just play 4000 minutes again like he did this past season. We had allegedly agreed to terms with Mandi this summer, but if Pau is gone that might not be enough. With Champions League money we may not be quite as priced out of Emerson as I initially thought, and if he came in at right back then Foyth could be our first choice rotation at two different positions.
There will probably be a case that even if Bacca leaves, we should sign another striker, and it’s one I definitely understand. Paco didn’t have the year he probably should have had, especially after his midseason injury woes. I do want to make sure we handle that in such a way though that we do not inhibit the growth of Fer and Pino. Between those two, Paco, Gerard, and Chukwueze, I think we have good attacking options going into next season. In theory I would like to see us upgrade at keeper, but I don’t think Asenjo or Rulli are going anywhere and on an emotional level I’m very fine with that.
I expect it to be a fairly quiet summer. Even if Pau leaves I think the main business will be just buying multiple CBs to fill the void. We have an experienced, talented squad. If Iborra hadn’t had a season ending injury, I don’t think we run into the CM depth issues we had this season and I believe we end up higher on the table. The CL will be a financial windfall, but we can’t overreact to it, because we do not know if we’ll be back there next year. I think the improvement of our young players will add quality to the side without us needing to spend a whole lot of money, and that should set us up well for the future.