Koeman, Barcelona players pledge to ‘turn page’

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman, new club captain Sergio Busquets and veteran defender Gerard Pique paid tribute to Lionel Messi before and after Sunday’s Joan Gamper trophy game against Juventus, before pledging to “turn the page” in the absence of the legendary forward.

Almost 3,000 fans turned out at the Johan Cruyff stadium for the event, which also serves as the squad presentation for the upcoming season, but which has been overshadowed by news that Messi will exit the club, with sources telling ESPN that he is set to join Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca could not complete the 34-year-old’s new contract, with his previous deal having expired last month, due to “financial and structural obstacles.” Earlier on Sunday, a tearful Messi bid farewell to the only club for which he has played, insisting he had wanted to remain and did everything he could to make that happen.

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Chants of “Messi, Messi” could be heard across the stadium as players were being presented to the fans, as well as in the 10th minute of the game. Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati and new signing Memphis Depay were applauded while Miralem Pjanic and Samuel Umtiti, both on the transfer window list, received a frostier reception.

“Despite Leo Messi’s farewell, we are very excited about the new season with the squad that we have and the signings we have made,” Koeman told the crowd. “Moreover, the youngsters that are coming up to the first team and that are the future of this great club.

“We are convinced that we will give you a lot of joy this season,” the Barcelona coach continued. “With a lot of help, work, sacrifice, we will achieve the maximum. We know the duty we have to represent this club.”

Koeman also played down reports that new signing Sergio Aguero was ready to follow compatriot Messi out the exit door: “It is not true that he wants to leave. He has signed and is excited. It is a pity that he suffered an injury this morning and he can’t play.

“It is a step back, he was training and he can contribute a lot.”

Messi’s departure saw Busquets claim the captaincy and the Spain international knows he has big shoes to fill.

“It’s an honour to arrive here as first team captain of the best club in the world,” Busquets said. “I’ve had great examples like [Carles] Puyol, Xavi [Hernandez] and Leo [Messi]. I will try to be up to standard. I want to have a special memory for Leo.

“Thanks for taking Barca to the top, making history,” Busquets added. “Being the best in the world and beating all individual and collective records. We wish you the best. Eternal thanks, Leo. Finally. a new season begins, with great enthusiasm and ambition. We fight for all the fans and we do it with you. We need you more than ever.”

Following Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Juve, Pique explained that “the team was affected.”

“Especially those of us who have spent more years sharing a dressing room with [Messi],” Pique added. “At the level of talent and magic, it is not the same when the best in history goes away. You lose a very important part in attack, someone that gave you a lot of goals and assists.”

Pique sent a message to teammates that “we have to compete,” and his manager said everyone was responsible for covering Messi’s absence.

“We have to turn the page, we cannot change this situation,” Koeman said. “I have told the players. We have to improve, we are not going going to have the goals from Leo. The midfielders have to score more goals and we must improve as a squad.

“You always miss someone who is the best in the world,” he continued. “We have to accept it. The players must give a little more. We will give opportunities to young people. There is a future.”

Messi, who scored 672 goals in 778 games for Barcelona and is the club’s record appearance maker and top goal scorer, leaves the Catalan club as a free agent, one year after he sought an exit having fallen out with then-club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.