For the second time in two seasons, FC Barcelona’s Champions League campaign has been curtailed before the knockout stages. No one expected an easy outing, with Barca being drawn in the “Group of Death” alongside Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, and Viktoria Plzen.
However, Barcelona’s manner of elimination this season was unacceptable for most fans. After five games, we have just one win (against Plzen), and one draw, losing THREE times. We have conceded 10 goals while scoring just 4.
Undoubtedly, Barca were hard done by poor refereeing decisions in almost all games. However, the substandard officiating was just a part of a wider ensemble of Xavi’s issues.
FC Barcelona began the UCL campaign as well as anyone could have wished, with an emphatic 5-1 victory over Plzen at home. A Robert Lewandowski hattrick was complimented by goals from Kessie and Ferran Torres.
However, Barca were dealt with a reality check against Bayern Munich. The Blaugranes failed to capitalize on their chances in the first half, and then conceded twice in the second half at the Allianz Arena.
Two disappointing games against Inter Milan ensued, a 0-1 loss at the San Siro, and a 3-3 draw at the Camp Nou, which pushed Barca onto the brink of elimination.
Barca’s fate was out of their own hands at this point, and Inter Milan, masters of their own destiny, pummeled Plzen with 4 unanswered goals to seal our demotion to Europe’s second-tier cup. And FC Barcelona’s own game a little later resembled a demotivated and demoralized team, one that Bayern Munich blew away with utmost ease for a 3-0 win. At the Camp Nou.
If FC Barcelona need any excuses for their premature exit, they need not look any further than the 23rd man on the field. Barcelona were denied clear penalties against Inter Milan and Bayern Munich away from home, at crucial junctures that could have turned the flow of the game. At the San Siro, Barca also had a goal inexplicably ruled out, as it was legitimate according to the UEFA laws.
Unacceptable Champions League Exit For FC Barcelona
In a tournament like the Champions League, where the very best teams face off every week, the margins are always fine. And in each game, fans were left wondering how different the result may have looked if the referee blew the whistle and VAR took a different call.
But it is not enough for us to point fingers at external factors for the elimination. In fact, a lot of Barcelona’s undoing has been our own fault; poor tactics, substitutions, in-game decisions or just mentality.
Again, football is a game of margins, and in a competition like the Champions League, the margins are ever so fine. When two teams of fairly equal skill, quality, technical ability and tactical acumen clash, it is almost impossible for one team to dominate proceedings from start to finish. There will be moments, however fleeting, where the subordinate team creates chances to get into the game for themselves. And the ability of the team without game control to exploit such moments, or the team with control to conceal them, can make or break a title charge.
FC Barcelona need control, such has been the interpretation of Cruyff’s legacy. Against Bayern Munich, we had 53 and 52% of the ball respectively. Against Inter Milan at home, we had 61% of the ball, while the other two games we had over 70%. Barcelona use possession as the means of controlling the game, however true it may be in the application. For example, against Inter Milan at the San Siro, the Blaugranes were able to retain the ball as they liked, but played straight into Inzaghi’s plans. While Barca controlled the ball, Inter controlled the game.
More important than whether possession itself equals control (it does not), is how Barcelona handle moments when they actually do not have control.
The best teams know to manage when they are on the back foot. Juventus were adept at it between 2015-17, Liverpool did it well, Chelsea did it magnificently under Tuchel, Atletico Madrid reveled in chaos, and Real Madrid thrive in it. These teams could adapt, improvise and overcome situations when they were forced out of their comfort zone, whether rit was the concession of a goal, the use of different formation or personnel.
Barcelona however, suffer without control. Against Inter Milan, the 1-0 lead allowed Inzaghi’s men to sit back and defend with 11 men behind the ball, and Barca lost the plot. At the Camp Nou, Edin Dzeko’s equalizer led to the team unravelling and quickly conceding a 1-3 lead. Against Bayern at the Allianz Arena, a goal from a corner took away the team’s spirit, allowing Sane to double the lead shortly after.
In each of these games, Xavi’s men began as the better team. However, they failed to break the deadlock, or create a solid enough lead for themselves. And when the opposition were handed a lifeline back, and when they took advantage of their chances, Barcelona wilted.
We could discourse forever about referees, or Xavi’s starting XI choices, or his own tactical decisions, and find plenty of things that could have gone differently.
However, FC Barcelona’s inability to react to conceding control has come to haunt them back for too many years now.
Is it a stylistic problem, a mental problem, or a problem in personnel? Over 7 years after Luis Enrique’s brilliant system (the last Barca manager who knew to win us games when we were on the back foot), we are no closer to finding a fixed solution.