The Champions League draw is done and the path to the finals has now been laid, revealing that Barça will have to face some of Europe’s top pedigree at every stage if they are to reach the final. How do things look for the Catalans?
The whole world anxiously looked on as Paulo Sousa drew ball after ball at the UEFA headquarters at Nyon. Both club representatives and fans around the world watched alike, from the comfort of their localities. With every ball drawn, the framework of the mega event grew clearer and clearer. As always, the Champions League draw lived up to the astronomical expectations it is often associated with. For the neutral football fan, there are some dazzling fixtures scheduled for the next month. Things for Barcelona though don’t look very promising.
A novel format of the Champions League
The world has been going through extremely difficult times. Every country has had to face the brunt of this devastating pandemic. Amid all the chaos, the UEFA along with the cooperation from the national football federations worked out a formula to keep European football going. It was never going to possible to play it with complete normalcy.
After the Champions League draw, Barcelona already know how their path to the trophy looks like | Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images
The committee decided to conduct the entire Champions League in a 12-day event in August. With international travel not being as facile as before, the entire tournament from the quarter-finals stage will be conducted in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Unlike the trademark two-legged fixtures that the Champions has been known for, this year the games will only be single-legged. Go big or go home!
A massive boost to Barcelona, however, is that the second leg of the round of 16 fixture against Napoli will be played at the Camp Nou. The other changes announced include a maximum of five substitutions at three intervals in the game, and an extra substitution permitted in the event of extra time.
Reliving Barcelona’s run so far
It has been a fairly long while since the glorious Champions League anthem rattled through the stands of stadiums across the world. After a five-month long hiatus, the competition returns and it is necessary to know how Barcelona got where they are.
The Catalans were initially drawn into Group F alongside Inter Milan, Borrusia Dortmund and Slavia Prague. It was certainly the most difficult group on paper, and the fixtures testified. The blaugranas remained unbeaten throughout the group stage, winning four of their six fixtures. They pulled out some stunning displays like the 3–1 win over Borrusia Dortmund at home. At the same time, there were some not so pretty fixtures, particularly the goalless home draw with Slavia Prague. Barcelona finished at the top of the group.
At the round of 16 draw, the European giants found themselves drawn against Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli. The first leg at the city of Naples was an enthralling night of football. Antoine Griezmann’s precious away goal cancelled out Dries Mertens’ opener before Arturo Vidal was sent off in the 89′. After the 1–1 at the Stadio San Paolo, both teams prepare to face each other on Saturday 8 August at 21:00 CET for the second leg.
The all-important second leg
The Champions League path from the quarter-finals for Barcelona looks to be a doozy. But it is all based on one assumption: that they overcome the test against Napoli at the Camp Nou. The San Paolo Stadium in Naples witnessed an extraordinary night of football with both the home side and their Spanish guests taking part in a gritty battle. Barcelona came back home with an all-important away goal scored by their star signing from the summer, Antoine Griezmann.
“First we must focus on beating Napoli. We will play at home, which is fair. It’s good to know our future opponents”
SSC Napoli currently sit sixth in the Serie A, and are on a good run of form. They took down the mighty Juventus in the final of the Coppa Italia to take home the silverware. It would certainly be foolish of the azulgranas to take Gattuso’s men lightly. They will also be without the services of Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, through suspension, and Martin Braithwaite, who isn’t registered to play in European contest. The game at the Camp Nou will be a test of strength, both physical and mental. All that can be said right now is that Barça do not have their ticket to Lisbon yet.
The team that comes on top at the Camp Nou has been drawn against the victor of the clash between Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
After the first leg at Stamford Bridge in February, Bayern Munich hold a three-goal lead over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. More importantly, a three-away-goal lead. In the Champions League, the first rule is to never write a team off. Chelsea on their day can rip through opposition defences with their combination of talented youth and experience. However, the chance of that happening is bleak indeed.
With the domestic double sealed, Bayern Munich now aim at the second treble in their history | Photo by Michael Sohn / Pool via Getty Images
The Bundesliga and DFB Pokal champions have all eyes set on the treble. After an extremely rusty start to the campaign and a managerial change in the process, they look in better form than ever. With manager Hans-Dieter Flick they are unbeaten in their last 26 games across all competitions. The team has been scoring goals at free will, with Robert Lewandowski enjoying one of his most stellar seasons to date.
Barcelona’s recent history at the European stage has not been very pleasant. Facing a team so high in confidence would be a difficult hurdle to get past. There is no doubt that the team has the quality, but do they have the mindset to see them past the German champions? No doubt, it will be a very difficult hurdle to get past. Nevertheless, it is only 90 minutes of football that decides the fate of a team. Neither side can be written off.
The victor of quarter-final 3 find themselves drawn up against the winner of quarter-final 1.
The first quarter-final tie of the Champions League will be played between the winners of the Manchester City vs Real Madrid and Juventus vs Olympique Lyonnais. A battle of the giants indeed. As things stand, Man City has a 2–1 lead over Los Blancos, with captain Sergio Ramos suspended for the return leg at the Etihad Stadium. One would expect Pep Guardiola’s side to go through, but Zinedine Zidane’s men can never be written off.
Elsewhere, Juventus, who haven’t been in the best form themselves lately, are a goal down against Olympique Lyonnais. It is anyone’s game to win, and thus it is difficult to make any prediction.
Pep Guardiola looks to win his first Champions League title since leaving Barcelona | Photo by Ángel Martínez via Getty Images
If Barcelona makes it to the semi-final, they could face any of the four clubs, all of them steep mountains to climb. Manchester City has been rejuvenated since the return of football, even seeing off Premier League champions Liverpool in a dominant 4–0 victory. Real Madrid have not dropped a point since the return of football and have virtually sealed the La Liga title for the season.
Juventus have been in quite a poor form, and haven’t hit their stride yet, but expect them to stand up and deliver when it matters. Underdogs Lyon are always a low key threat. A physical side that knows how to soak up pressure and hit on the counter, exactly the type of team Barcelona often loathe.
On the other half of the draw are Atlético de Madrid, Atalanta, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig. The favourites to reach the finals may indeed be the kings of France PSG, who have a relatively easy route to the finals, at least compared to the other bracket.
At the same time, this could also be the year of redemption for Diego Pablo Simeone. After a rather underwhelming season, Atlético de Madrid found their stride after annihilating Champions League winners Liverpool in their own backyard. They are undoubtedly the dark horses to this year’s trophy.
Barcelona’s recent history in the Champions League has not been very charming for its supporters. If an easy draw is what culeé were hoping for, it is most certainly not what they wanted. If Barça are to lift the trophy this year, it will be a long and gruelling path. Every hurdle gets bigger than the previous one. With the topmost European sides waiting for the Catalans at every step, a captivating journey begins. It is most certainly not impossible, but it will need a herculean effort which the team is certainly capable of.
The causes and effects of Barcelona’s inability to cope with pressure
On the back of a 1-4 trouncing at home to Paris Saint Germain, Barcelona had the opportunity to extend their 7 game-winning run in the league to a phenomenal eight, and against probably the easiest of competition to do so.
After all, Cádiz were on the back of a four-game losing streak in La Liga, having won a meagre 5 points from a possible 33, and up against a team that had won 31 from their last 33. This was as perfect a game as they came, but, as has been a motif at the Catalan club in recent years, they crumbled under pressure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The defence gave away two big chances, one of which came from a ludicrous and much too easily avoidable penalty two minutes from time. As for the forward line, despite having had eleven and a half chances more than their visitors to hit the back of the net, amassing a whopping 3.56xG, they could settle for only one goal, and this too from a penalty. Ronald Koeman had a mostly tolerable afternoon, but at this point, the complaints about the team make the ever-demanding fans sound like a broken record.
In this article, Barca Universal explores some events that have become all too common when the team faces minimal adversity, stretching from the managers in the dugouts, the pressure the collective falls over for in crucial moments and finally, individual mistakes which, like a bad rash, spread to all corners of the team continue to plague the club.
Managerial incompetence in crucial moments
Barcelona’s last three managers, Ronald Koeman included, have each shown, and on plenty of occasions, certain character traits that, rather than improve the team, contribute to its inevitable downfall. What is most shocking is, despite being akin to water and oil in terms of their tactics, they each have an uncanny ability not only to fail to learn from each other but, more surprisingly, themselves.
Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Koeman have each shown a palpable level of a lack of tactical ingenuity whenever called upon. In one way or another, each one of them has taken the club farther and farther away from its roots, all while failing to replace them with anything sustainable enough to win points, or at the very least, make games enjoyable.
It comes as a shock that even in-game, whenever their set systems start to show fissures, neither one of them has consistently shown the most basic of requirements in a manager, this coming in their ability to rectify their errors.
In 2019, leading 3-0 against Liverpool, Barcelona needed just but a goal to gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League’s final. Rather than set his side up for an offensive tussle with the Merseyside club — who mind you were bereft of any real attacking talent —, the then manager deployed a controversial and rather defensive 4-4-2 formation, providing little to no width and with a clear disconnect between the midfield and the two up front.
Down by a just goal at half time, Valverde had the chance to add Malcom to attack the right flank given Andy Robertson had been taken off at halftime, but he opted not to. He had a chance to add Arthur Melo to improve ball circulation after conceding two in two minutes to Georginio Wijnaldum but instead decided to go for Nelson Semedo.
The sheer lack of order in the team, and his inability to react to reach the goals they scored, meant Barça would inevitably give up the aggregate lead and the tie as a whole. Impervious to criticism, he would continue to show this very same level of incompetence for the nine months that led up to his sacking.
Quique Setién did much of the same here too. Once admired for his Cruyffist tendencies, he fell apart under the unspoken power dynamics set in place by the heavyweights in the club, leading him to never make changes to his starting elevens regardless of how poorly an individual had played. Even when the game was crying for an intervention via a substitution, he, like Valverde, before him would cower in fear and take refuge in the dugouts, which for much of his tenure remained untouched.
Despite having three years worth of evidence on what not to do at Barça, Ronald Koeman continues to make the same exact mistakes as his predecessors. He at least makes rotations in the starting eleven every once in a while, but unless, of course, the team is in a comfortable winning position, he will wait until at least the 80th minute to effectuate any changes to the team’s shape, tactics, or personnel. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that almost every game that has seen Barca trail this season in La Liga has gone on to end as either a draw or a loss of all three points.
Against Paris, many fans observed the gaping holes left in between the defence at the halfway line and the poorly dispersed midfield and attack. This was at halftime, yet in the second period, he left it as it was rather than change up the team’s shape. The exact same mistakes occurred at home against Cádiz in both the first and second period and was only met with a change in the final minutes of the tie.
In La Liga, where the level is lower, managers can get away with a draw here and there, but in the Champions League, where every mistake is punished, they all falter, and to the surprise of no one. When push comes to shove, they all look clueless, lose their train of thought, and as has been the case in each of the last four years, the Blaugrana have lost and lost heavily to equal opposition.
Players that simply don’t make the cut
It comes to reason that not every defeat is as a result of managerial or tactical mishaps. Sometimes, and as has been the case for many years now, tactical flaws have been compounded with some ghastly individual errors, some of which lead fans to question how it is that these players became professionals in the first place.
There are many games that can illustrate this, but none more so than Barcelona’s almighty collapse against the new sextuple winners, Bayern Munich. It is quite unjust that subsequent to such defeats, only the manager’s contract is cut short. Some of the mistakes made by the entirety of the team in that game were so blatantly unacceptable that at least half the team should’ve been sacked at the end.
A score of 4-1 against Paris, or 3-0 against AS Roma this year and in 2018 respectively could be attributed to a manager’s inability to take a firm hold of the game, but when it goes beyond five, it is imperative that the players, perhaps more than their manager, be put to question.
Despite the average age of the squad on that night being over 30 years of age, everyone on the team, from Lionel Messi upfront to Ter Stegen in goal, made rookie mistakes. Leading from the front, the Argentine couldn’t be bothered to press for the ball, despite his individual mistakes directly leading to a quarter of their goals.
Luis Suárez partnering him, made just eighteen passes, nine of which were from the centre circle at the start of one half and one for each of the eight goals that Ter Stegen, a man whose capacity to play under pressure, is being questioned more and more by the year, conceded.
The entirety of the team has this impeccable ability to collectively fall into pieces, with mentalities that shrink to the sub-atomic level when faced with the slightest of adversity. The usual suspects in defence, these coming in Jordi Alba, who almost singlehandedly won Liverpool the second leg at Anfield, Samuel Umtiti, whose career essentially came to an end after the 2018 world cup, Clément Lenglet, whose in-game reactions can be outpaced by a tortoise, are often the catalysts to the team’s failure.
Football is a team game, but individual errors often do have a profound impact on the collective. How is Barca supposed to be challenging for La Liga when their defence is the one with the most individual errors leading to a goal in the entire division.
How are clean sheets meant to be preserved when individuals like Clément Lenglet concede 3 penalties in the same campaign, each leading to a loss of points. It is borderline impossible to challenge for anything when half the time, in do or die situations, you have defenders that shoot themselves, and thus the team, in the foot.
But it’s not only the defence to be blamed. The attack and midfield, charged with finishing chances and creating an air of stability, respectively, do none of the like when called upon. Against the Bavarians, the midfield was essentially inexistent, with next to no pressing, and even when applied, none of it had any coordination or impact on the much superior German machine. Passing somehow from a trio or quadruple of players whose careers are built on just that, all inexplicably goes awry or loses all meaning at the slightest instance of pressure.
The forward line, as seen on innumerable occasions this campaign and during their European disasters, somehow collectively forgets how to find the back of the net. No one can be spared from this judgment, not even Messi.
Ousmane Dembélé had the chance to kill off the tie against Liverpool, but rather than blast the ball past Alisson in a 1v1 situation, he chipped it into his arms and did basically the same thing against Paris last in midweek when he wasted a chance to take the game to 2-0, only for the visitors to equalise within seconds. The same was the case as recently as yesterday against Cadiz, whereof 23 shots made, only one via a penalty found the back of the net.
Barcelona not only have to contend with managers who show complete ineptitude at understanding or implementing the one style of play asked if them, but also a team that, when needed to perform, has not the slightest idea how.
As Johan Cruyff once famously said, “football is a game of mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.” When it comes to Barcelona, winning goes from something that should be a regular, weekly occurrence to a proverbial mountain crafted from the tiniest of anthills.
These errors span all the way from managers in the dugouts who, despite years of experience, keep making the same mistakes to the players on the pitch, who, through a lack of attention to detail, ridiculous mistakes and otherworldly missing, never cease to contribute to the demise of the team.