The crowd at the Estadio Da Luz chanted the name of Lionel Messi. Benfica’s supporters were enjoying themselves at post-Messi Barcelona’s expense. They were on the way to their first victory over these opponents since 1961, and by a handsome margin.
Or, rather, by the margin that has become more or less standard whenever a club with any status takes on damaged, bruised Barca in the Champions League.
Benfica won 3-0, just as Bayern Munich had won 3-0 at Camp Nou two weeks earlier; the same scoreline by which Juventus won on their visit last season. Paris Saint-Germain beat Barcelona by a three-goal margin in February, which heralded Barca’s exit from the Champions League at the last 16 stage. A season earlier, Bayern had knocked them out 8-2, and in the previous seasons their eliminations had come via a 4-0 loss to Liverpool and a 3-0 defeat to Roma.
Three different managers, the latest Ronald Koeman, have overseen this chronic decline at a club that in the last 15 years have been European champions four times. A decade ago, Barca were considered perhaps the finest club side this century. To chant Messi’s name, as the Benfica loyalists did, is to recall that era and painfully remind Barcelona of all they have lost.
Is this their rock bottom? It could still get worse. Wednesday evening produced a humiliation, but events earlier in the day had shown there are few escape routes.
In the morning, Spain’s La Liga had published their annual salary caps, which govern each club’s allowed spending on wages and transfer fees, based on independent audits of those clubs.
Barcelona, balancing huge debts and the fallout from having their vast stadium closed to spectators throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, were expecting a harsh new limit and in August cited that as the reason they had to let Messi leave. Their cap has lowered from a year ago by €234 million, to €97m.
On Wednesday, it was also announced by La Liga that most Spanish stadiums could return, with the pandemic easing, to full capacity. But health services in Catalonia, the region whose capital in Barcelona, are pausing before permitting 100 per cent occupation of stadiums. That is a setback. To build the gradual economic recovery Barca need, the turnstiles at Camp Nou, which can seat close to 100,000, to be fully active.
Within a severely curtailed transfer budget, they also need talent to emerge from within, fast and direct from an academy, La Masia, that was once the envy of the world. “La Masia is the way to go, and with our distinct style, we can put ourselves on another level,” proclaimed the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta before kick-off in Lisbon.
He had barely taken his seat and analysed the starting XI chosen by Koeman when Benfica went 1-0 up, with the young La Masia-reared defender Eric Garcia thoroughly bamboozled by the goalscorer, Darwin Nunez. By the end of the night, Garcia, who rejoined Barcelona from Manchester City in the summer, had been sent off, his second red card already this season.
The senior La Masia graduates, players who were part of great Barca sides in the past, like Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets had nights to forget, too. Pique was taken off in the first half because Koeman felt he was already dangerously close to a second yellow card.
Koeman has repeatedly advised that this Barcelona side should not be stood up for comparison with those that Pique and Busquets helped to European Cup triumphs in 2009, 2011 and 2015. “We have lost players who could make the difference season after season,” he said after a defeat that leaves Barcelona without a point and bottom of Group E.
Those past match-winners would include chiefly Messi, but also Luis Suarez and even Antoine Griezmann. That trio all departed Barca in order to ease the salary burden. A very bad week for Barcelona was made no better by seeing Messi score his first goal, on Tuesday, for Paris Saint Germain; on the same night, Griezmann and Suarez orchestrated a comeback from 1-0 down at AC Milan for Atletico Madrid. Griezmann is on loan from Camp Nou at Atletico; Suarez moved there 14 months ago.
Atletico, who were guided to last season’s La Liga title in large part by Suarez’s goals, are where scarred Barcelona must go on Saturday. On Thursday, Koeman started his preparations for that foreboding fixture with little certainty he would still be in charge at the weekend.
Laporta is scanning around for a replacement, and realising any wise manager will look at the state of this fallen giant of a club and think twice. And they will see the budget restraints and know Barca’s decline has no instant solutions.