Messi: Honey, I am coming home.
His Wife: What about dinner?
Messi: Not for me, bad day at the office.
His Wife: I “8–2”.
Yeah, I stole it from someone and I swear it’s the last one for the day. Champions League nights hardly disappoint. Unless you end up on the losing side. Then it’s straight-up miserable. It’s the best competition in the world for a reason.
Champions League is back with a slight change. For starters, you had knockout stages played over the weekends. Second, only one leg per fixture. No home-away logic, no winning on an overall draw with more away goals. It definitely meant competitive and entertaining matches considering you either go big or go home. Barcelona shrugged off an inspiring Napoli team, all thanks to one Lionel Messi. Nothing unusual. The guy dribbled and scored even while down on the ground. He has been carrying his teams for as long as one could remember. But even the magician can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat every time someone asked for.
Everyone had Bayern as the clear favourites heading into the quarters. Not only because they were prolific so far but also Barcelona’s performances throughout the year didn’t instil confidence in anyone even after the COVID hiatus. No one knew Germans had one more target in their mind after 2014 Brazil. What followed was one of the worst performances by a Barcelona team in everyone’s living memory and one of the heaviest defeats in a single match in this competition. Nothing new for Bayern, ask Tottenham, Arsenal or Chelsea. The only difference, they made the Culés suffer only for 90 minutes. Thank God, there was no 2nd leg to this fixture.
Vidal said in a press conference before the match that Barcelona is not any other Bundesliga team, rather one of the best teams in the world. The only time Barcelona had been this confident was 1994 finals against Milan when Cruyff proclaimed before the match that he was going to immortalise his Dream Team. Milan thrashed Barca 4–0. I think Bayern mistook Barcelona for Crystal Palace looking at the way they played and their kit colours. No matter how much I laughed during the match, I had a hard realisation that we have gone through the same thing with our team for the last 7 years and counting. It frustrates you more when you realise we lost to this Barcelona team last year.
Shut up, no one cares about United!
Defeating Barcelona has been synonymous to winning Champions League on many occasions. Madrid in 2002, United in 2008, Inter in 2010, Chelsea in 2012, Bayern in 2013, Liverpool in 2019. Barcelona has been the most successful European club during 2006–15. Winning the treble twice while setting the record of winning all possible trophies in a calendar year. 2009 was something else. It was the onset of the golden years for the most successful generation of Barcelona players. Some of those who would go on to dominate at the national stage as well.
The major factor for this dominance was the talent that La Masia was brewing. Barcelona has been dependent heavily on the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Busquets who showed the world that a homegrown talent can outperform any superstar on the pitch. They peaked at the time when Pep was about to revolutionise and pick up from where Cruyff’s Dream Team left. He also had great supporting cast in Henry, Alves, Mascherano.
If we look at the different squads throughout these years, you always knew that the future of the team is in safe hands. We remember Ronaldinho’s assist for Messi’s first goal and Ronaldinho carrying him on his shoulders in celebration. Obi-Wan Kenobi found his Anakin Skywalker. The team always found it easy to hand the baton to next great squad not worrying too much about transition stalemate. This resulted in a great combination of talented youngsters with experienced senior players to make an unbeatable team.
Now come to this team which got the beating of a lifetime. The average age of the starting XI is 30 years. The average age of all those champions league winning squads of 2006–15 was 27 years. It’s just mind-blowing that the next best promising player on the pitch was Ansu Fati who is 16 years younger than Messi.
Over recent years, La Masia has not been able to produce similar talents who could fill in their senior’s shoes. The most noticeable names are Pedro, Fabregas, Jordi Alba and Roberto. Along with this, the team hasn’t been wise in the transfer market with the exception of Neymar and Suarez. There have been some massive signings: Dembélé, Griezmann, Coutinho, Vidal, Andre Gomes, Lenglet, Malcom. It’s easier to find good players, it’s tough to make them play as a team. These players have hardly made any impact worth remembering. Hell, they have been so inconsistent, playing a complete season would be one hell of an achievement, let alone win some trophies. Let’s look at some of the players up front with Messi in the past: Eto’o-Henry, Villa-Pedro, Suarez-Neymar. These were consistent, big-game players and bulk goal scorers.
I remember for a brief period of time when Neymar shone in the absence of Messi during the 2015–16 campaign. It was a brilliant sight considering someone was able to emerge out of Messi’s shadow and make name for himself. But he could not sustain it once Messi was back on the pitch. I do not blame Messi for this. If you are playing with the greatest player of the modern generation, being a no.2 isn’t bad. But Neymar’s ambition to be the alpha male took him to PSG. Neither Messi nor Neymar could fill each other’s void to achieve that success. (Winning league title isn’t a biggie for these two, so ignore that). I wouldn’t mind riding the coattails of Messi if it meant being a winner or a champion.
One loses sight of the future if the present is rewarding. Barcelona was so dominant, it was considered an achievement to just win the ball from them. No one knows it better than United, having tried that on two different occasions. But fatherhood catches up to everyone. You do not have Xavi, Puyol or Iniesta on the team sheet. Busquets has put exemplary performances year in, year out but has limited miles left in his legs. Pique has tried to mould himself into Puyol over the years but nahh, lacks character and intimidation to be a defensive leader.
The one thing which I have noticed is that Barcelona always has a solid plan-A before the game. And it is a very simple plan. Simplest of the things are hardest to execute consistently. Barcelona owes all its success to it. But when things go south, they find it difficult to adapt as per the conditions. Once the world found out a way to break Tiki-Taka, it was hard for Spanish football to reign supreme. The most memorable moment for me is Celtic vs Barcelona, group stage, 2012. Let’s look at some stats: Barcelona had 73 per cent possession with 865 passes and 14 shots on target. Celtic had 134 passes with 4 shots on target.
Last few champions league campaigns speak a similar story. Atletico, PSG, Juventus, Roma, Liverpool, Bayern. Sure, Barcelona had one of the greatest comebacks against PSG but to be honest they should not have been in that position against that PSG in the first place. Juventus, Roma, Liverpool, were smart enough to adapt in the second leg and not let Barcelona dictate the terms. Messi and company had no answer and were humbled. Simply put, Barcelona has been outfootballed.
Even after all this, I wouldn’t call this squad worthless, to be honest. I believe they have lacked a strong leader in their captain and manager. Don’t take me wrong, I am all in for Messi being the captain of the squad, but Messi is no Puyol or Xavi when it comes to leading the team. You don’t need to be the best player but a figure of respect and inspiration. Keane, Terry, Vieira, Puyol, even Ramos for that matter. Puyol could scare the shit out of his rivals and teammates alike. I remember a match where Puyol scolded his own teammates Alves and Thiago for disrespectful celebration. Xavi orchestrated the entire game with his presence in the midfield. He still holds the record for 100% pass completion in Champions League with 96 successful passes. I am not sure if there is a better candidate than Messi. If there was, I am sure he would be the first one to pass the captain’s band.
There are good managers and then there are legendary managers. A good manager only worries about short term success. Enrique, Mourinho, Ancelotti. But the legendary managers build the culture and the squads for generations to come. Ferguson, Wenger, Cruyff, Guardiola. Guardiola might be a surprise pick but he laid the foundation so strong the team still stands strong after such defeats.
90’s Barcelona players and next Barcelona manager: a better love story than Twilight. It worked with Pep, doesn’t mean it will always work. Guardiola has since then tried his luck with Bayern and City but could not replicate the accomplishments. Guardiola was a perfect fit because of his coaching style. Tito, Enrique, Valverde have all failed to pick up from where Pep left. I will give more credit to the players than Enrique for the 2014–15 treble.
Josep Maria Bartomeu has been the most incompetent who should have balls enough to claim responsibility. Barcelona has spent close to 1.2 Bn $ and got no one good enough. Even Neymar’s record transfer fee was spent unwisely in Coutinho and Dembele. I appreciated Pique’s words after Bayern debacle where he offered to leave if it could work for the team but also hinted on the management changes. The club was recently caught in a social media scandal leading to the resignation of 6 board members. Neymar rightfully said in an Instagram post in 2017 “This president is a joke”. Act now Bartomeu for Barcelona to be still “More than a Club” instead of nothing more than a joke. Eric Abidal though being a fantastic player has failed as a sporting director. He bid goodbye to the team after falling short to make successful changes to the team.
And guess what, who is going to be the next manager, Ronald Koeman. We know he was a crucial part of Cruyff’s team, but how do you avert a crisis with this guy. His greatest accomplishment has been managing Netherlands. His recent stint at Everton was a disaster. Never knew I would have to say this but the club should learn from Real Madrid. Madrid went all-in for the La Decima but immediately struggled after it. This team had quality players who could collectively be the best in the world but lacked belief. With his experience playing with Galacticos, Zidane was able to turn this team into the best team in Europe. Lampard and Arteta are trying to achieve a similar thing with their clubs. It is very necessary for someone to understand the team and the culture to eventually guide them to success.
Xavi is the right man for Barcelona. Appointing him right away would be preparing the pig for slaughter. The team needs foundational changes which won’t happen in a single summer but will need 2–3 years. Juventus is following a similar approach with Pirlo. Koeman could be the interim manager who initiates the changes and prepares this team for Xavi to takeover. Xavi would surely leave all that oil money to be back at his boyhood club.
In the past, it just took Messi to follow a team on social media to create a panic. But now more than ever, this seems like a real possibility. Messi’s performances have been nothing short of perfection. He has been the highest goal creator in Europe’s top 5 leagues for the last 4 seasons. He had 25 goals and 20 assists this season. They don’t make players like these anymore. You either are a playmaker or a goalscorer in the present game. To be equally good at both speaks volume about the brilliance of this man. It’s really saddening to see him hang his head down in despair after his team’s performance. Imagine if Sachin played for Zimbabwe or Bangladesh. Or Michael Jordan played for Wizards. Wait, that did happen. They would still be the greatest players regardless of the team’s performance. But we no longer watch the game where Ferguson could ask for 10 pieces of wood along with Zidane and win the champions league. Even with the GOAT, you need the remaining team to show up.
We haven’t heard back officially from Messi but from the looks of it, Barcelona is about to lose a lot of supporters next season. Messi would surely like to win the Champions League again while he still can. There are rumours of Messi playing for Leeds United next season. I mean all credits to Bielsa for Leeds’ promotion, but seriously. It is hard to imagine him playing in any other colours. Messi is in a contract till 2021 with a release clause of 700 million euros. Good luck to the clubs window shopping during this pandemic.
For the first time since 2005, neither Messi nor Ronaldo were part of the Champions League semi-finals. It sure seems like the end of an era. You wonder how they have been able to maintain their dominance and rivalry for almost 15 years. Consistency, ability to adapt and insatiable hunger to be better than yesterday. Dinosaurs were one of the most dominant species on the planet. All it took was an asteroid to wipe them clean. No one expected Milan to struggle the way they have. No one expected United to reduce to a shambles after Ferguson and still not recover from it. Change is the only constant. This club has seen the best players in the world come and go. Cruyff, Ronaldo (Brazilian), Figo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and possibly Messi. It is time for Barcelona to prove if they really are more than a club. If they still do not learn anything from our story, then I would request my fellow Barcelona fans to follow what we have been doing for the past few years. Remember the facts and records from the past. Because that’s all you will be left with to boast of.
All the Best!