Andy Mitten

Financial reality bites for Barca

Andy Mitten

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The return legs of the Champions League last 16 loom large in Spanish football as none of the country's three remaining teams won their first leg matches.

Tournament favourites Barcelona were beaten at Arsenal and Real Madrid drew in Lyon - the seventh time that they have played the French side and the seventh time they have failed to beat them.

Jose Mourinho's side will be favourites in their quest to get beyond the last 16 for the first time in six years, but the same thing was said at the same stage against the same team a year ago. Unlike last year, Madrid avoided defeat in France and have an away goal.

Like Madrid, Barca hope that they can go through to the quarter final-stage off the back of a convincing win at home where they are strongest.  Valencia, the third Spanish side, drew 1-1 with Schalke 04 and face a tough away leg in Germany.

The Camp Nou is sure to sell-out with a crowd close to its 98,000 capacity for the Arsenal game. Barca average over 75,000, but their home - the biggest football stadium in the world in regular use - is only full for the visit of Madrid and the most important Champions League matches. They price the tickets accordingly.

You might expect match tickets at a club owned by their fans to be reasonably cheap, but Barça are charging non-members up to €195 for a seat in the main stand and between €88 - €102 to sit behind the goal for the Arsenal game, this in a country still suffering deep economic woes. They can do this because most of the people buying tickets at this price will be from outside Spain.

Barcelona benefits from more football tourists than any other city and the club's argument is a simple supply and demand one. If you have a season ticket at Camp Nou then you get rewarded for your loyalty with keenly priced tickets, even for the Champions League matches. Or, if you want to attend Copa del Rey matches against lesser opposition then you can find tickets for as little as €5. But if you want to show up once or twice a season then you'll pay for the privilege. Barca know that these types of fans are the most fickle - membership of their Swedish supporters' club halved after Zlatan Ibrahimovic left Catalonia.

The Barca v Arsenal game has several interesting twists, from injuries to key players on both sides, to Arsenal signing Barça's most promising 16-year-old last week. Midfielder Jon Toral will earn a reported €300,000, 30 times more than if he'd stayed at Camp Nou on the €10,000 fixed annual salary which Barca give their 16-year-old players.

One danger for Barca is that outside of the first team, their staff wages are less than spectacular. They recently lost the head of their famed Masia academy to a similar role in that footballing hotbed of Dubai. He cited "a fresh challenge" - his bank manager will see a sixfold increase in wages.

The Catalans were keen to avoid a repeat of the situation which saw them lose Cesc Fabregas and Gerrard Pique to England in 2003, but Arsenal acted legally, if immorally, in the dog-eat-dog world of football.

The conversations between club officials should be intriguing next week in the Camp Nou, especially as the player is represented by Pep Guardiola's agent brother Pere, who also represents Andres Iniesta. Some Barca fans have accused him of a conflict of interest and it's a difficult issue for club president Sandro Rosell, who was elected on a mandate of transparency and honesty.

Before the European games return next week, there's plenty of important league action, including a full midweek fixture list in La Liga. Third-place Valencia take on Barca, with in-form David Villa returning to the Mestalla, while Real Madrid host a Malaga side managed by last season's coach Manuel Pellegrini.

Malaga spent big in January, but couldn't win once in seven games until they beat Almeria at the weekend. That victory saw them leapfrog their vanquished opponents and move off the bottom of the league, but far better is expected of Malaga given the quality of their personnel.

The other team in the bottom three is Zaragoza - a club who should be far too big to be fighting relegation, but who consistently find themselves at the wrong end of the table. Zaragoza have two tough games this week - at home to Athletic Bilbao and away to Barca on Saturday.

Barca will be glad to have a home game before their Arsenal clash, the most intriguing match of the Champions League so far this season.

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