Barcelona‘s players were called to the Camp Nou early on Wednesday, arriving a couple of hours before the start of their Champions League game with Bayern Munich and a fraction after the start of Inter Milan‘s Champions League game with Viktoria Plzen. The coach, Xavi Hernandez, had set up everything up specially.
The idea, he said, was for them all to watch the early kickoff together. That, after all, was the game that would decide if they remained in the competition or not, their fate not in their own hands but instead settled 990 km away: If Inter won, they were out; if Inter didn’t win, Barcelona would live to fight another day. That same day, in fact.
As it turns out, it wasn’t a very good idea. It was never really going to be.
There is a famous episode of an old British comedy series called “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” in which Bob and Terry try to avoid the result of an England game so that they can watch the highlights “as live” on the television that night. All day people try to tell them what happened; all day they hide, desperate not to ruin what comes next. Somehow, they manage it, until the very end when they finally find out that [SPOILER BLOCKED].
That episode is from 1973. It was hard enough to do then. It’s even harder now, 50 years on. But it still might have been a better idea: get the players in, take their cellphones off them, keep them away from any mention of the other match and then send them out to play, everything at stake, competitive tension at its highest. Maybe even lie to them. Whatever actually happens in the other game, tell them: “Blimey, Viktoria have only gone and done it, lads! They’ve beaten Milan at San Siro. The miracle is on. Now go out there and do your bit: beat Bayern and we can go through.”
Instead, they sat and watched Viktoria lose, which they were always likely to: Viktoria had lost all four games and let in 16 goals. It was 2-0 before half-time. At the moment that Barcelona’s players went out to warm up, Inter were scoring the fourth. Barcelona were out, they knew. And within nine minutes, they were losing to Bayern. By the end, they had been beaten 3-0. They had not managed a single shot on target. Only Alex Balde really offered anything. Xavi insisted that what had happened in AC Milan: “affected us psychologically, for sure.”
No, really?! Who would have thought it?
Xavi admitted that Barcelona had not competed, and the fact that they knew they were out, that they didn’t just now, but had watched it happen, may have been part of the reason why. It’s not exactly the best motivation. Who knows, maybe it would have been different if anything had been riding on it, if it had really mattered. Or maybe not. This is bad: Barcelona have now been beaten six times in a row by Bayern, with an aggregate score of 19-2. The last 15 goals scored in games between the two teams have been scored by Bayern.
For the second year in a row they had failed to get out of the group — something that had never happened before. You have to go back to Terry Venables’s time for when they last played in the UEFA Cup two years running. It is not just that they were out early; they were out a game still to go, or even with two of them given that Inter played first on the penultimate round. They have not been out this early for 24 years. The impact is significant: Barcelona have budgeted for more than this, for their income from the competition to be in the region of €40m. So far, it is closer €20m. Not all of that is lost — although income is less in the Europa League, there is income. But this wasn’t supposed to happen.
€727m in asset sales, €153m in signings, and they were out. That spending was supposed to ensure this didn’t happen, to push them into something more positive, kick-start their growth. But at the end of this game, Pedri said that Barcelona still don’t have enough to compete in the Champions League. There were hints of Gerard Pique‘s “it is what it is” from last season.
Xavi, though, didn’t agree. Last season they had suffered against Benfica, he said; this year, until the final night, conditioned by their elimination before they took to the pitch, he reckoned they had competed. “This time we had it in our hands,” he said.
There was something in that. They had gone to Munich and Milan and performed, a little unlucky to have lost. They fact that they had gone to Munich and Milan at all was significant too: this was not any easy draw, a group in which going out was plausible from the start. Any team might have gone out. There had been key injuries too — and concentrated in defence. The absence of Ronald Araujo — the man, it might be noted, that was supposedly the least “Barcelona” defender — was especially significant. They had scored three at home against Inter. And yet … and yet they were out.
If they had it in their hands, it has gone. There is no escaping that this was a failure, even if that’s word everyone dances around. There is this weird obsession in Spain with coaches and players desperately trying to avoid saying failure and a weird obsession with journalists trying to make them say failure. On Wednesday night, Xavi eventually, and a little pointedly insisted: “if it is a failure, it’s an apprenticeship too.” It is. And there is still much to learn. For Xavi and his inexperienced staff too of course: his Champions League record reads played seven, won one.
There is progress, for sure — look at their domestic record — but there are problems too. Afterward, Xavi said his team would still compete for the titles, and he might be right: they should reach the final stages of the Europa League and they’re still second in LaLiga. Yet the ease with which teams cut through is startling. You can point at individual mistakes, say that the team played really well at times, and complain about referees, but mistakes do not come entirely in isolation. Missed chances, opportunities not taken — and Julien Nagelsmann admitted Barca had plenty of them at the Allianz Arena — are not only bad luck. They had been knocked out in the away games but the home ones weren’t the remedy.
Against Inter in the 3-3, it was all too easy: every diagonal ball cut right through them. Xavi said they had played well, but the three they conceded, the others they could have conceded, said differently. Against Bayern, they were 2-0 down after just two shots, it is true — but that was because the chances Bayern had made were so clear-cut, so simply built. And they created nothing in response.
At the Bernabeu, there was a similar feeling of an opponent acutely aware of their vulnerability. Writing in El Pais, Juan Irigoyen says that at the end of the Clasico, a Real Madrid player told a colleague in the Barcelona, you’re like a flan at the back. A flan is like a kind of custard dessert: soft, wobbly, easy to put your spoon through.
Some of the signings have succeeded: Robert Lewandowski certainly, although he was unable to score against Bayern and Madrid. Jules Kounde still might, probably will. But the others? Ousmane Dembele is still a conundrum, capable of being absolutely brilliant and awful, sometimes in the same move. All of a sudden, the midfield has been changed. Frenkie De Jong is back in. Against Bayern, the best of them was left out. Gavi leads the press: without him, there wasn’t much of one. By the end of the Clasico, for all the money spent, for all the new era, the full backs were still Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto.
Defeat came and the impact is significant, economically and emotionally, institutionally too. So, now what? Well, you could always try pulling another lever. Burn it all down. Throw a load more money at it. The rumours have started already — if they had ever truly stopped.
Now what? Football on Thursdays.