On the overall balance of a year spent in steady decline, Barcelona’s 1-1 draw at Sevilla on Tuesday counts as a dignified end to 2021. Sevilla, after all, are currently the leading challengers to Real Madrid’s pace-setting pursuit of the Spanish league title.
Against clubs with that sort of competitive authority, Barca have been in the regular habit of quaking. In the last 12 months, they have lost two clasicos to Real Madrid, lost 2-0 to Atletico Madrid, and built up a hefty catalogue of defeats by three-goal margins against heavyweights in Europe - two 3-0 losses to Bayern Munich, a 4-1 home beating from Paris Saint-Germain.
The encouraging signposts to a better 2022 are to be found in the number of fresh Barcelona faces barely touched by the dreary fatalism that a poor year spread across the senior squad.
Against Sevilla, much of the vigour was supplied by two teenagers, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, by the young Moroccan winger Abde Ezzalzouli who reached the age of 20 only last week, and by a pair of 22-year-olds, Ferran Jutgla and Ronald Araujo. Four of those five have made their first-team debuts within the last four months.
Gavi, a midfielder of bristling energy and disciplined passing, has risen so rapidly he has already been promoted to the senior Spain national team; he, Nico and Abde have clear assigned roles under new head coach Xavi Hernandez. Jutgla will soon be on first-name terms - plain Ferran - to the fans if he continues the very strong impression he has made since his debut less than two weeks ago.
Jutgla scored on his first start, the 3-2 win at the weekend against Elche; he showed no reluctance to unleash shots, from all distances, against a compact Sevilla defence in his second start.
He is part of a list that bodes well for a club who have said goodbye to so many experienced, reliable goalscorers - Messi, Aguero, Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez - in the last 18 months. In their last three Liga matches, the six Barca goals have been scored by Gavi, 17; 19-year-old Nico - twice - and Abde, Jutgla and Araujo.
So strong is this youthful breeze that Xavi found himself exasperated by a little-known Spanish league rule that stipulates every top-flight team must have on the pitch at all times at least seven players registered only with the senior squad.
So many of those whom Xavi has promoted and backed in the month or so since he replaced Ronald Koeman began the season assigned to the Barca B, he has run a risk of having more than four of them in action, potentially risking forfeiting a fixture.
“It’s a rather stupid rule,” said Xavi, “but presumably it’s there for games late in the season" when clubs with nothing at stake might field weakened teams, to blood young players, and risk giving opponents with much at stake an easier match. "But from the point of view of developing players it’s closing off their progression.”
Barca expect to assign roles in the first-team squad to some of the recently-promoted players in January, when the opening of the transfer window allows.
One footballer at the opposite end of his career will also have his name added to the roster. Dani Alves, 38, has been training with Barcelona for several weeks, on the understanding that he, out of contract since he left Sao Paulo in September, would in January make a fairytale return.
He represented Barcelona for eight years until 2016, accumulating in dazzling Barca sides many of his 43 career trophies. His most recent was the gold medal as one of Brazil’s over-aged players at the Tokyo Olympics.
The combination of Alves’ leadership and the youthful promise of so-called ‘Baby Barcelona’ - a nickname that will seem even more appropriate when Pedri and Ansu Fati, both 19, return from injury lay-offs next month - enthuses Xavi.
“I’m proud of the team. It’s competing, and it’s improving, and that’s the right path,” he said after the draw with Sevilla, who had been reduced to 10 men for the last half hour following Jules Kounde’s flash-of-temper red card for throwing the ball into the face of Jordi Alba. “But I’m not pleased with the result.”
Barcelona, eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage this season, are still shy of the top four berth that would qualify them for next season’s edition of the main European competition. Without that, some of those talented youngsters may feel more tempted to consider a future elsewhere.