It was a deplorable and poignant end to a spine-tingling night at the Spotify Camp-Nou as the Catalans giants, Barcelona, suffered a 3-3 draw with Inter Milan. Xavi and his men came into the game looking to turn their ill-luck around but were unfortunately stricken by more mischance as Inzaghi and co magnificently strode towards the Round of 16 stage.
Barcelona’s Efforts to Progress in Champions League
Last season, Blaugrana, then headed by Dutch tactician and club legend, Ronald Koeman, were slotted into a relatively easy group consisting of Bayern, Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv. The Spaniards performed woefully taking home 7 points out of a possible 18 in the group. Infact the entire Champions League roster managed to score just two goals; meagre for a side that has won the UEFA Champions League five times. Six points were claimed from two 1-0 wins(both against Dynamo Kyiv) while the Catalans had a goalless draw against Benfica on home ground.
The remaining fixtures were 3-0 losses; against Bayern, home and away and against Benfica, the most humiliating of the trio. It was quite unexpected that Blaugrana would hit the skids in a group like this as Bayern were the only threats to their potential position as group-leaders.
Ronald Koeman was soon given the boot by Laporta and another club legend in person of Xavi Hernandez,(then manager of Qatari club, Al-Asad) was hired to take hold of the reins. With Koeman having managed four games, two left to go, a shift in managerial functions and responsibilities, Xavi probably had little time to get his team through to the eighth-final of the competition. The club managed a point in two games(a goalless draw to Benfica and a loss to Bayern) and were ultimately knocked out of the UCL. In that egregious campaign, the 5-time UCL winners managed only two goals and conceded nine, one of the worst UCL outings in the club’s history and probably the worst in the 21st century.
Europa, here we come
After wiping the tears off their eyes, dusting off their feet, it would have been almost certain to say the Europa League belonged to FC Barcelona. Perhaps, their infamous relegation had been a blessing in disguise and was a golden chance at redemption for Barcelona. Perhaps, it was the only possible trophy they could clinch in the 2021-22 campaign.
Despite playing in the Europa which happened to be several steps lower than the UCL, Barcelona tussled and fought, paving their path through to the quarter-finals. They defeated Napoli 5-3 on aggregate and managed a slim 2-1 win against Galatasaray. However, in the quarter-finals, Xavi’s men were once again shell-shocked by Eintracht Frankfurt(the eventual winners), with the German team ousting them 4-3 on aggregate. Once again, the Catalans had failed on an European stage.
2022-23: Things were supposed to change, weren’t they?
After striding to a second-placed finish in the domestic league, a disappointing quarter-finals exit from the UEL an an overall unrewarding season, one bereft of trophies and medals, Barcelona decided to invest heavily in their team. The club upgraded their roster by adding a prolific goalscorer in Robert Lewandowski alongside Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso, Hector Bellerin, Rafinha, Franck Kessie. With this moumental addition to the team, they were expected to impress in Europe and challenge for the trophy, right?
What have they got up their sleeves this time?
Barcelona found themselves in a difficult group with Bayern, Inter and Viktoria Plzen as competitors. This wasn’t supposed to be a problem as the Spanish side had strengthened their attacking and defense forces in both numbers and quality. They were off to a good start on Matchday 1, completing a 5-1 rout of Viktoria Plzen courtesy of a Lewandowski hattrick. With Bayern in sights, The Catalans travelled to the Allianz Arena a week later to take on the team that had manhandled them for the greater part of a decade.
Despite dominating a good portion of the match, Barcelona fell short to their long-time nemesis and were sent packing from Germany with an uncomfortable 2-0 loss. Inter were next and they certainly had to write wrongs right. The international break worsened the club’s ill-fate as key players picked up injuries. Kounde, Frenkie De Jong, Araujo and some others were laid out during the course of national duty. Barcelona had to do without some essentials on Matchday 3 which panned out almost the same way the game against Bayern had. A 1-0 away loss which saw Andreas Christensen added to the injury list with a sprained ankle further aggravated and plummeted the club’s condition.
Home to Inter at the Spotify Camp Nou, this was a must win for Xavi’s men as Inter were skyrocketing towards group qualification while Barca had the reverse. Barcelona had to win it here and now. After 40 minutes of game play they found the much needed, crucial goal through Ousmane Dembele. Inter fought back, responding with two; one through Nicolo Barella and the other through Lautaro Martinez.
Barcelona were going to throw in the towel not yet, as Lewandowski’s 82nd minute strike gave the hosts some hope before Inter poured cold water on their ambitions with an 89th minute counter attack leading to a Ruben Gosens goal. Though Lewandowski managed to hand Barcelona a point through an extra time header, the Catalans couldn’t just find the win.
Barca needed the win so much, anything short of that indirectly implied failure and they finally fell short.
Barcelona have always reached at least the knock-out stages in all the seasons Messi spent with the senior team. The last time and only time in this century(prior to 2021) Barcelona featured in the Europa league was in 2003/04(then known as the UEFA Cup). A season later, Messi was promoted to the senior team and Barca competed in the UCL ever since then till 2021. It’s interesting to note that the Catalans won four of their five UCL trophies during this period(with Messi playing a key role in three of the four campaigns). He was the highest goal scorer in the 2008/09, 2010/11 and joint highest goal scorer in the 2014/2015(shared with Ronaldo and Neymar) campaign.
Prior to these two seasons(2021/22 and 2022/23) Barcelona always impressed in the UCL(the group stages at least). With Lionel Messi on their side, the preliminaries of Europe’s top flight was more like a cake walk for the Spanish giants. Whenever they needed goals, they looked up to him, whenever they needed someone to create the goal-scoring opportunities, he had to be there as well. He was almost all over the pitch. A night with a switched-off Messi was like a night with a switched-off Barcelona; remembering the night Liverpool hampered Blaugrana 4-0 in a semi-final comeback. It was almost impossible for the Argentine legend not to score in every tie Barcelona had in Europe. They just couldn’t do without him. Though, they did fare well during some occasions of his absence, but as long as he was donning the blue and red shirt, they needed to be lifted on his shoulders. Of course, it’s not fault of his that he departed, but he’s greatly missed by all and sundry in the Camp Nou. His egress has left a huge gap in the club; one that has not yet been filled till today.
Why Messi left
Barcelona’s heavy spending started a couple of years ago with the club acquiring then Brazilian prodigy, Neymar. Asides other transfers, the coronavirus also had the team plunge into deep financial crisis. Owing to the fact that Blaugrana couldn’t afford keep a high-earning player like Lionel Messi, they had to part ways, unfortunately. It was heart-rending and dismal. Even though the club has purchased the services of Robert Lewandowski, it’s not yet been able to solve it’s problems completely.
Lewandowski has played every bit of his role at Barça, already with 16 goals to his name in 14 games, exactly half the number of goals the club has managed this season. It appears Barcelona has built a structure, a gameplan around Messi for too long, one that needs to be broken. They’re gradually in the transitional phase from a Messi era to a post Messi era and should be up and running even though it may take a while plus it would be quite difficult to get another magical Messi.
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Going forward, Barca would definitely want to learn a thing or two from teams like Bayern, Liverpool, Real Madrid and the likes who work together as a cohesive unit rather than depending on individual brilliance and intelligence. Already, Lewandowski taken out of the team would spell huge disaster to the club. Barca must amend their mistakes and change their pattern and strategy if they’re going to continue to be amongst the strong forces in Europe.
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