“I could lie,” said Ronald Koeman, surveying the wreckage of Barcelona’s European campaign. Or he could have cited famous, apparently implausible comebacks of the fairly recent past. Four years ago, after all, Barcelona recovered from a 4-0 first-leg defeat by Paris Saint-Germain, to win an extraordinary tie 6-5 on aggregate.
Koeman could have concealed his true belief in his players capacity to perform a similar feat in Paris on March 10, after Tuesday’s 4-1 first-leg loss at home to a Kylian Mbappe-inspired PSG. Koeman chose candour instead. “I could lie but a 4-1 is very difficult to make up. We have very little chance.”
Koeman might be accused of unhelpful gloom. He would insist that clarity is important. The Barcelona he took over last August are in transition, which is the gentle term for decline, and, although there has been a promising run of league form lately, they are absolutely not in the upper tier of superclubs.
“We are missing things that you need to have to be at the top level, above all Champions League level,” Koeman acknowledged after his mixture of veterans, costly underachievers and shell-shocked future prospects had conformed to a script that is far removed from the 6-1 win at full Camp Nou that in 2017 turned around their last meeting with PSG.
Back then, Barcelona were Spanish champions. Back then, they had won four European Cups in the previous 11 years and Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba were still under 30 years old and Neymar and Luis Suarez were Messi’s attacking accomplices.
Tuesday’s defeat to a dynamic, fresh and vibrant PSG belongs in a different Barcelona tradition, the modern one which spells out the story of their diminishing Champions League status in heavy scorelines: 2018 quarter-final - Roma 3, Barcelona 0; 2019 semi-final: Liverpool 4, Barcelona 0; 2020 last-eight: Bayern Munich 8, Barcelona 2; 2020 group stage decider on who finishes top: Barcelona 0, Juventus 3.
In three of those, Barcelona had started with an advantage. They actually beat Juventus 1-0 in Turin last October, and, notoriously, had three-goal leads from the first legs of their ties against Roma and Liverpool. Even against PSG in an emptied Camp Nou, they took the lead, via a penalty, which, this season, is the only sort of goal Messi scores in Europe.
It was another sad night for Messi. The captain’s future, once his contract expires in June, is the constant lens through which Barca’s current predicament is viewed, and there is very little way of seeing this latest setback shifting his view that this is no longer a club at which, at 33, he can aspire to winning a fifth European Cup.
Barca v PSG player ratings
Messi had his moments against PSG, including the lofted pass that led to Frenkie de Jong being awarded the penalty, but as Koeman observed, the speed with which PSG equalised - Mbappe scored the first of his three goals five minutes after Messi’s spot-kick - pointed to the same brittleness in Barcelona that they revealed in those thumpings by Roma, Liverpool, Bayern and Juventus.
“When you concede an equaliser so quickly, it is always a problem,” said the coach, pointing to a chance, set up by Messi, that Ousmane Dembele had struck weakly at PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
“That was a good chance, at 1-0,” lamented Koeman, while Messi could hardly avoid seeing it as a deja vu. In the see-saw semi-final against Liverpool in 2019, Messi had also set up Dembele with a glorious opportunity to score a fourth Barcelona goal in the tie. Dembele, the €117m purchase, fluffed that one too, and Messi collapsed to the ground in despair.
But the images that most endure from this latest rout will be the pictures of a desperate, outpaced Pique grasping at the jersey of an escaping Mbappe - a World Cup-winning Barcelona centre-half, 34 and rushed back into the team after almost three months out with a knee problem, eclipsed by a 22-year-old who won the last World Cup while still in his teens.
“We know what can happen to us when we play a team physically superior to us,” said Koeman, “and PSG showed they are a more complete side that we are, we have to accept that.”
Bayern 8 Barca 2
Ominously, the PSG who stretched Barcelona this way and that, who controlled midfield through Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes, were not the complete PSG by any means.
They were missing the injured Neymar and Angel Di Maria, two of what is probably their first-choice front three. Di Maria is on schedule to be fit for the return leg. Neymar may yet be.
And PSG are already halfway to matching the 8-2 scoreline that ousted Barcelona last year from a competition that looks less and less like their natural domain.