Barcelona have had to grow accustomed to continental calamities in recent times. The trend started three years ago when the Catalans let a 2-0 first leg slip away to Roma, who produced a barely believable comeback. A year later, it was Liverpool who did similar. Then came last year’s 8-2 mauling at the hands of Bayern Munich.
The problem for Barca is that these indignities have become so common that they are no longer so noteworthy. When Paris Saint-Germain claimed a 4-1 win at the Camp Nou in last season’s Champions League round of 16, few eyebrows were raised - it was a result that illustrated where Barcelona were as a team.
With every passing season, though, and seemingly with every passing game at the moment, standards are slipping further and further. A 3-0 home defeat to Bayern Munich to start this season’s Champions League campaign was followed by another loss by the same scoreline to Benfica on Wednesday night. How much further will Barcelona fall? Can it get any worse?
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Ronald Koeman’s side have now won just one of their last five fixtures in all competitions. Benfica only added their name to a list of teams to have exposed Barca’s fundamental weaknesses this month that includes Bayern Munich, Granada and Cadiz. Their 3-0 win over the Catalans won’t be spoken about like Roma’s three years ago was because this is the sort of thing expected of Barcelona in 2021.
There was always likely to be a drop-off after the departure of Lionel Messi. The Argentine’s goals and general brilliance masked so many problems for Barca. Now that he’s gone, those problems have been brutally exposed. The aura Barcelona, one of world football’s most romantic clubs, had is now completely gone.
For all their undeniable problems on and off the field, though, Barca should be a lot better than they are currently. The team that started against Benfica on Wednesday night was full of players proven at the elite level of the game. Their midfield unit of Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri should have given them control of the contest. It didn’t.
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This points to poor coaching, and this is the dilemma Barcelona have with Koeman. While the Dutchman has been useful in the way he has brought through a number of youngsters during his time in charge, re-establishing the link between the Barca first team and La Masia, the experience he is giving those youngsters might not be what they need at this stage of their development.
It is, for instance, unfair that so much expectation and pressure has been heaped on the teenage shoulders of Ansu Fati and Pedri. Young players need a certain degree of freedom to make mistakes so that they learn from them and improve. Barcelona’s fledgling stars don’t have this because they are the ones carrying the team.
Koeman is counting on the likes of Ansu and Pedri to deliver the short-term results needed to justify his employment in the long-term, and that isn’t an especially healthy situation for Barcelona to be in. The margin for error might currently be too narrow for anything to truly grow from this period in the club’s history.
For now, Barca would surely settle for merely keeping their dignity. This great, illustrious club has never before been in such a sorry state. Barcelona will come good again, they will scale the heights of the European and Spanish game at some point in the future, but until then Koeman and his players are charged with limiting the damage to the club’s reputation. They’re not doing that.
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