The Europa League has welcomed a number of big clubs in recent seasons. Last season, for instance, saw Manchester United drop down to the second tier competition. The season before, Inter made an appearance after Arsenal and Chelsea had faced each other in the 2019 final. As recently as 2016, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool were even playing Europa League football.
And yet the sight of Barcelona in the tournament after Christmas will be a jarring one. Like a glitch in the footballing matrix. This, after all, is a club that set the zeitgeist for an entire era of the European game. Only 10 years ago, Barca were producing performances that had many hailing them as the greatest team of all-time.
Their fall has been a dramatic one, but Barcelona belong in the Europa League in their current state. The Catalans might still be one of the biggest clubs around, but the performances they have produced on the pitch this season have not been befitting of a team that deserves to go any further in the Champions League.
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Barcelona’s decline was laid bare in the 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. Not so long ago, these were two teams competing at the same level. They were both considered among Europe’s very best and among the perennial contenders to go all the way in the Champions League every season.
While Bayern Munich are still at this level, with Julian Nagelsmann’s side top of the Bundesliga and boasting a perfect record in this season’s Champions League so far, Barcelona are now a shadow of their former selves. Bayern Munich didn’t even have to play that well to put three unanswered goals past them, winning at a canter.
Xavi Hernandez has given Barca some structure since his appointment with the Catalans more assured in their possession of the ball. Even as they were swatted aside at the Allianz Arena, Barcelona still managed to hold their own in the centre of the pitch. Too often, though, their possession was without any purpose.
With Lionel Messi gone and Ansu Fati and Pedri still out injured, Barca are toothless in the attacking third, illustrated by their record of just four goals in five games under new manager Xavi. What’s more, two of those four goals were penalties and three of them came in the one game.
The young core at the Camp Nou gives Xavi something to build around. The likes of Ansu, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez and Pedri represent Barcelona’s future, but the present isn’t so bright. "I am angry,” Xavi said after the loss to Bayern Munich which sealed his team’s Europa League fate. “I don't like that this is our reality now. But we have to accept it, take it on, we've no other option.”
In some ways, the Europa League could be a good thing for Barcelona. There will always be a spotlight on the Camp Nou club, but dropping down to the second tier will take some of the pressure off their young team. The opportunity to make a deep run in a knockout tournament against lower calibre opponents could also boost confidence.
There is no quick fix to the problems Barcelona have. Even if the team on the pitch was heading in the right direction, the club’s off-the-field issues would limit their progress. The Camp Nou is a difficult place to be at this moment in time and if a Europa League run can bring Barca some momentary joy, they should take it.
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