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Barcelona Takes Another Big Step Back

Marc Andre ter Stegen, keeper of FC Barcelona reacts as Leroy Sané of Muenchen scores the second goal during the UEFA Champions League group E match between FC Bayern München and FC Barcelona at Football Arena Munich on December 08, 2021 in Munich, Germany.
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

When Barcelona hired Xavi to replace Ronald Koeman as manager, what the club bought itself was time. Time to learn, to fail, to grow, to recover, and, hopefully, to eventually succeed. The team is not ready to win, not right now. It has to have calm, trust, and commitment to endure all the necessary learning and failing and growing if it is to once again attain success. On Wednesday, Barcelona suffered its biggest failure of the season, which means the clock on Xavi’s time officially starts now.

Heading into Wednesday’s Champions League group stage finale, Barça was desperate for some good luck. If the Catalan club won its last match, or if Benfica failed to win the group’s other game, the club would be delivered to the next round of the competition, with all the glory and prestige and money that comes along with it. Fail to win and see Benfica win, and Barça would be condemned to life in the Europa League. Benfica’s opponent on the fateful day was Dynamo Kiev, the worst team in the group and one of the least impressive in the entire competition. Barça’s was Bayern Munich. Unsurprisingly, luck never showed up.

It’s instructive to note the similarities and differences between this Barça-Bayern match and the one that opened the group stage back in September. In the first match, Barcelona played tentatively, non-aggressively, almost more afraid of losing than driven to win. In Wednesday’s match, Barcelona played with pride and desire, their determination to pull off the miracle evident in their play. In both games, Bayern didn’t even need to play particularly well to demolish Barça by a pair of 3–0 scorelines. The mentalities were different but the talent gap was the same, and so was the result.

It will be telling how Barcelona responds to this loss in light of the response to the first Bayern debacle. That September defeat was what sparked the acrimony and second-guessing and bad feelings that enveloped the team and eventually consumed Koeman. “This is what there is,” Koeman said of his roster after losing to Bayern, in doing so trying to absolve himself of blame for the team’s woes, and to realign the club’s expectations toward something more realistic. “This is our reality,” Xavi said yesterday, “and it pisses me off.” His words were similar to Koeman’s in that Xavi too acknowledged that the squad as presently constituted can’t really aspire for more, but different in their tone, with Xavi making clear that the situation is unacceptable and that he is determined to fix it. That is, after all, why he was hired, and unlike Koeman, Xavi will be given the time to try.

In a vacuum, falling into the Europa League might not be the worst thing that could’ve happened to Barcelona. In the continent’s JV tournament, Barça will have the chance to feel big again, to compete against inferior opponents in meaningful knockout matches, and potentially earn some much-needed confidence by winning in style. Xavi and this remarkably young Barcelona squad need to learn how to win, and to build the confidence that comes with winning big games, even if the Europa League’s “big” games are far smaller than those in the Champions League.

We’ve seen deep Europa League runs serve as the springboards for fallen greats before. A then-unproven Diego Simeone christened his maiden campaign at Atlético Madrid with a surprise Europa League title. Jürgen Klopp got Liverpool to the Europa final in his first season, and along the way engendered a lot of the trust and love he gets from the fan base by proving that his Liverpool would be different. Most of the big figures of Barcelona’s recent spate of Champions League humiliations have left now, and there are few better ways for the new group to excise those European demons than to start banishing some demons of their own.

Unfortunately, though, Barça’s season is not in a vacuum, and the non-sporting blow of missing the Champions League knockouts could have enormous repercussions. Almost as much as Barça needs time, it really, really needs money. And Europa League money cannot compare. All the reliable reports coming out of Spain say that the club will go all out to try to sign forward Ferrán Torres from Manchester City in the January transfer window. Being able to count on another couple big Champions League checks would’ve made those efforts much easier. Without that money, and with Barça’s current seventh position in the league table putting in doubt the club’s participation in next year’s Champions League, it’s unclear not only whether Barça can be buyers in January, but whether it can hold onto its own key players. Is Sergiño Dest long for this city? Could the club really turn down a big offer for Frenkie de Jong? Is Ousmane Dembélé going to sign a new contract, one paying him less than he could make elsewhere, to play in the Europa League?

If there is a silver lining to Barcelona’s Europa League ignominy, it’s that Barcelona can now get to work with a clean slate. Koeman said “This is what there is,” and said a good Barcelona season would be getting out of the Champions League group and finishing top four in La Liga. Even if his messaging was wrong, his assessment was right, and those who pilloried Koeman for saying it have now had to accept its truth. Xavi—who has already proven a savvier, more creative, less obstinate coach than I’d feared—may have seen his clock start now, but he still should enjoy plenty of time and space to get things right. All Barça fans want is to believe the club is once again moving forward. Sometimes, it takes one final step backward before that march can truly begin.

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