Barcelona’s players checked in on Tuesday to a Munich hotel where phantoms from the past lurk. Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordo Albam and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen might have taken some encouragement. They were also guests at the Westin Grand on the night they sealed a place in the club’s most recent Champions League final, seven seasons ago.
So was Xavi Hernandez, who came on for the last 15 minutes of the second leg of the 2015 semi-final against Bayern Munich to carefully secure possession and keep safe a 5-3 aggregate lead. Xavi was to play his last Barca match in the 3-1 victory over Juventus in Berlin, delivering the club’s fourth European Cup triumph within 10 years, and, as it turned out, closing the greatest decade in the club’s history.
Xavi stayed in the head coach’s suite on Tuesday night, ahead of his first away match in Europe as the manager charged with making a declined, failing Barcelona into something closer to their former selves.
The contrast between now and the late spring of 2015 is stark. Back then, Xavi, Pique, Busquets, Alba and Ter Stegen woke up at the Westin on the comfortable pillow of a 3-0 first-leg lead over Bayern. Wednesday’s group-stage meeting with the Germany champions demands they make amends for a 3-0 defeat Bayern inflicted at Camp Nou in September.
Barcelona followed that up with another 3-0 loss, to Benfica, and although they have picked up seven points since, they head off from their hotel to the Allianz Arena knowing they must win to guarantee joining already-qualified Bayern in the knockout phase. Benfica, a point below Barcelona and in third spot, host Dynamo Kiev in Lisbon, knowing that if they beat already-eliminated Dynamo, they would leapfrog Barcelona as long as Xavi's team lose or draw with Bayern.
The arithmetic around progress looks all the more brutal when Barcelona - who lost at home to Real Betis on Saturday and have failed to score in two of Xavi's first four matches since he replaced Ronald Koeman last month - study the precedents. Bayern's 3-0 dismantling of Koeman's Barca looks mild if you set it next to the 8-2 humiliation of Bayern's victory over the Catalan club in the quarter-final of the 2019-20 Champions League.
Add to that, Bayern’s record in home group stage matches: their last defeat was in 2013. Since then: 22 victories and one draw. The atmosphere on Wednesday will be distinct, however. Because of public health concerns over rising Covid-19 infections in Bavaria, there are no paying spectators.
“We’ll have to fight like animals to get to the last 16,” said Xavi, who would become the first head coach to oversee Barcelona’s failure to progress from a Champions League group stage for 20 years if Benfica better their result. Elimination would carry a financial cost, depriving Barcelona, who have heavy debts, of at least €20 million ($22.5m) of income that comes with reaching the knockout phase.
Xavi will not line up a full-strength XI. Ansu Fati remains in recovery from a muscle problem, while Sergio Aguero and Martin Braithwaite are long term absentees from the attack. Midfielders Pedri and Sergi Roberto are also missing.
Bayern are likely to be without Joshua Kimmich, who has been quarantining after a positive Covid-19 test, while Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann indicated that minor fitness concerns would lead him to leave out midfielder Leon Goretzka and striker Serge Gnabry, given the low stakes of the game for Bayern.
But Nagelsmann made it clear his players had no intention of easing up. There are records to chase, not least for Robert Lewandowski, who is one shy of his 10th goal in this group phase. Lewandowski has scored in every one of Bayern’s five wins in Europe so far this season.
Nagelsmann, a youthful 34 - the same age as Pique - says he would take no pleasure in knocking Barcelona out of a competition they used to command. “It’s not about us eliminating someone else, it’s about us playing well,” he said, “and the situation Barcelona are in makes for a good game. They are under pressure and need to win to avoid depending on the other result.
“They’re a good team with experience and some very talented young footballers. I still see them as possible candidates to win this title.”
Nagelsmann may have sounded kind when he suggested that about a Barcelona who sit seventh in La Liga, even at a time when the overall strength of Spanish football is questioned. By the end of Wednesday night, Barca, Sevilla and Villarreal could all be eliminated from Europe’s principal club competition at an unusually early stage.