Barcelona's star has fallen but the Europa League could be their salvation

For the first time since 2001 Barcelona will not play Champions League knockout football

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On Wednesday evening, thousands of Catalans turned out to see their new star illuminate the city. It was not a player for FC Barcelona, but a 5.5 tonne star which was unveiled at the top of the iconic Sagrada Familia cathedral. As the cathedral, which has been under construction for 139 years, reached new heights, another local institution with 121 years to its name, sunk to a modern low.

The city’s main football club were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since 2001 after a 3-0 defeat in a freezing Munich. Season 2003/04 was the last time Barcelona didn’t play Champions League football after finishing out of the top four in La Liga.

Barca might have to get used to it, and missing out on the money which comes with it – which is one reason they were desperate to join a European Super League and the promised riches.

That dream has been shattered for now and in the real world the Catalans are currently seveth in the table and six points off reigning Spanish champions Atletico in fourth. It’s going to be a struggle for them to get back into a competition where for 13 straight years they reached at least the last eight and were crowned champions of Europe in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015.

What did they expect? Barcelona scored only two goals in their six Champions League group games this season. When they last won the competition in 2014/15 they had scored 15 by the same stage, winning their group ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax. Those two have progressed to become two of the most talked about sides in football for the right reasons, while Barcelona have regressed into a well-documented mess and Xavi, who played in all of those Champions League title wins, is back to unpick it.

Xavi, 40, was furious after Wednesday’s defeat to the Germans. “I'm angry. This is the reality. We have to tackle it face on. There's nothing else for it. A new era starts today. We start from zero.”

Bayern v Barca player ratings

Bayern Munich were on another level in freezing temperatures at home where they haven’t lost in Europe since 2013, just as they were when they put eight past Barca to knock them out of the 2019/20 Champions League. It used to be the other way around, but as Bayern’s Thomas Müller said: “Barca cannot cope with the intensity. Technically and tactically, they have it all. But at the highest level, they cannot match the intensity of the game.”

Barca have lost too much talent to compete with the best. Their squad was too bloated with talent and high earners. They had the highest wage bill in football in 2019, but if you take out the goals and experience of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Neymar, Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, Rafinha et al and replace most with talented but inexperienced players, you’re going to drop several levels. Add in injuries and ill-fortune like signing Sergio Aguero, who can’t play because of a heart condition, and you have this Barcelona team in December 2021.

This isn’t on Xavi. He’s not been in the job for long enough to make the changes he wants and needs. He needs players back from injury and new signings in January. Barcelona – the city and the club – remains hugely attractive to footballers and they should rise again, but when? Before the Sagrada Familia is scheduled to be finished in 2026? And will the millions of converts attracted to them when they were the best team in the world stick around?

Aguero taken to hospital with chest pains

The members who own the club will vote again this month on redeveloping the ageing Camp Nou stadium, funded by a separate loan similar to the one brokered by Real Madrid, who are finalising the redevelopment of the Bernabéu. The men’s team will likely move to their expanded secondary stadium for a season or more, currently home of the best women’s team in football, but the bigger focus is on the men’s side – and it’s a fallen one because it has been run so poorly.

Asked after the game in Munich to explain the difference between Barcelona and Bayern Munich in recent years, veteran defender Gerard Pique said: "The management of the club. It's as simple as that." Barca overspent, recruited poorly, grew arrogant and greedy. People who’d loved them from afar, even if as a second club, began to loath them. And now it has all come crashing down.

Football will be poorer for a weaker Barcelona, a club still proudly owned by their members, but the reality is that Barca will now play Europa League football for the first time. They have the talent to win it, but it’s a young squad. Gavi was their best player in Munich, but he’s 17.

“Barca’s objective is the Champions League, not the Europa League,” said Xavi. “But our reality now is the Europa League and we have to win it.”

Gavi, right, was Barcelona's best player in Munich but was powerless to stop a rampaging Bayern. Reuters

The prospect of a potential final in Seville shouldn’t be scoffed at for this is where Barcelona are now. Older fans realise that. They watched a club who won only one La Liga title between 1974 and 1991, while one of Barcelona’s most celebrated cup wins was the 1979 Cup Winners’ Cup final against Fortuna Dusseldorf. There’s a lounge named after that win at Camp Nou – along with the venues of all those Champions League triumphs.

Seville could invoke memories of the last time they played a European final there, the 1986 European Cup against Steaua Bucharest, which they lost on penalties.

The Europa League is more suited to Barca’s current level and it’s full of intrigue. Barca will be joined by Sevilla, the team which has dominated the competition with five wins since 2006, plus their city neighbours Real Betis and maybe compatriots and holders Villarreal. Not that anyone has much enthusiasm for the Europa League in Barcelona today.

Updated: December 10, 2021, 7:15 AM
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