Barcelona will play in the Europa League in the new year. The very same Barcelona that wanted to — and still want to — form a European Super League earlier this year are no longer good enough to make the knockout rounds of the Champions League, missing it for the first time in 17 seasons. What chance would they have in a Super League?
Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat against a Bayern Munich side in second gear, coupled with Benfica’s big win over Dynamo Kiev in Lisbon, sentenced them to third place in Group E and condemned them to Thursday night football in 2022. It’s the first time since 2003-04, when they didn’t qualify for the Champions League, that Barca won’t be in the last-16 of Europe’s elite competition.
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People who have been following Barca closely in recent years won’t be surprised by their demise. Since last competing in the Europa League — when it was still known as the UEFA Cup — in 2004, they’ve won the Champions League four times. Since last winning it, though, in 2015, things have deteriorated quickly. They’ve lost by three goals or more to Paris Saint-Germain (twice), Juventus (twice), Roma, Liverpool and Benfica in Europe in the past four seasons alone. And then there’s Bayern, who have now beaten them by three goals or more three times over the past 16 months, totting up an aggregate score of 14-2.
If Bayern Munich are the benchmark in Europe along with their Premier League peers, then Wednesday in an empty Allianz Arena as the snow fell offered the latest glimpse into just how far Barca have fallen. Asked why Bayern are now so superior to Barca ahead of this week’s game, defender Gerard Pique said it’s because they are a better-run club. “It’s as simple as that,” he said, pessimistically.
While it’s true that previous president Josep Maria Bartomeu ran the club into the ground — Joan Laporta succeeded him this year, with the club’s gross debt standing at €1.4 billion — that simplistic view removes any blame from the players, who were once again shown up in Munich. It’s a cliche, but it really is men against boys whenever Barca player Bayern at the moment. The German side are stronger, quicker, smarter and better-coached.
Barca tried to take the game to Bayern early on, but they just simply weren’t good enough. Even against a side that in theory had nothing to play for, having already secured top spot in the group and missing Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry through injury. Barca have injury problems of their own, with Ansu Fati, Pedri and Sergio Aguero among those sidelined.
Ousmane Dembele, making his first start of another injury-hit season, struck Barca’s best chance over the bar, but from the moment Thomas Muller opened the scoring in the first half, there was only going to be one winner. Leroy Sane added the second from distance — Marc-Andre ter Stegen might have done better — and Jamal Musiala completed the scoring in the second half after good work from Alphonso Davies, one of Barca’s chief tormentors in Bayern’s 8-2 quarterfinal win two seasons ago.
After that 8-2 loss, Pique said Barca had hit rock bottom, but things haven’t improved much since. It’s no longer just the defeats to Bayern; it’s the failure to beat the theoretically weaker sides in the competition, too. In six games against Dynamo Kiev, Benfica and Bayern this season, Barca scored just two goals. Bayern have scored 22. In all competitions, Barca have managed 25 goals to Robert Lewandowski’s 27 — and the Polish international didn’t even get on the scoresheet on Wednesday night.
Barca have now won just 10 of their last 24 away matches in Europe, and have lost five of their last nine games in the Champions League. It’s hard to find a positive statistic. They will now hope the Europa League really does represent rock bottom and that the rebuild can start here. “A new era is starting,” was the optimistic view from coach Xavi Hernandez immediately after the game.
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The seeds for change have already been planted by the appointment of club legend Xavi — as well as the return of Laporta as president earlier this year — but the Bayern game was just his fifth in charge. He may need five years to get Barca competing for the Champions League again. Dani Alves has also been brought back to the team — as a player at 38 years old — as the club bank on a mix of nostalgia, veterans and youth to take them back to the top. There are not many players in the squad, with the clear exception of Frenkie de Jong, in their peak years.
Financial restrictions that forced the summer exits of Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann, have led to extended opportunities for a crop of talented youngsters. In addition to Pedri and Ansu, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, Ronald Araujo and Abde Ezzalzouli have been among the best performers this season. The Europa League could be good for them. By the time the competition restarts in February, Xavi will have had over three months working with his squad.
Equally, the Europa League may also end up being Barca’s best chance of being in the Champions League next season. Sitting seventh in LaLiga, after defeats to Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis, a top-four spot in the Spanish league is by no means a given after 15 games.
Another cliche in Barcelona at the moment is “it is what it is,” born from the now infamous comment made — and heavily criticised by the local media — by previous coach Ronald Koeman after the 3-0 defeat to Bayern at Camp Nou in September. There’s perhaps no better way to sum up Barca’s situation at the right now.
There have been positives since Xavi took charge, but Bayern once again showed how much work Barca have to do. They can deal with not being in the Champions League knockout stages this season, but not being in the competition at all next year would be another economic disaster among many. Until then, they may want to put organising a Super League on the back-burner.