Europa League: A blessing in disguise for FC Barcelona
Having all too recently lost Lionel Messi to Paris Saint Germain, expecting a Champions League title from FC Barcelona was anything but a realistic prospect. With his departure, the Catalan — not so — giants lost a leader, an icon, and an autonomous attacking system, one which effortlessly weathered storms many could not even fathom taking on.
This season, the European campaign has been nothing short of a disaster for the Blaugrana. At every step made, another reason revealed precisely why this team is not exactly made for this sort of occasion.
Perhaps Barcelona’s most poignant issue is their incapacity to perform consistently, one which has harmed them since the very first matchday of the Champions League.
The late Johan Cruyff once said that to win, one needs to score one more goal than their opponents. An obvious statement, it seems, but one with plenty of value when looking at Barcelona in the present day.
While theoretically blessed with a cornucopia of attacking riches, the team struggles to create the slightest bit of threat in attack. It says a lot when half of Barcelona’s goals, two in six matches, if one might add, have been scored by a centre-back.
Having conceded nine times and scored just a pair, the Blaugrana are at their worst in decades from a purely attacking standpoint.
The inability to create, let alone finish, chances that come their way has resulted in the Catalans repeatedly being just one mistake away from another three points lost every single matchday, eight of which they have out of a possible fifteen.
A team that cannot score or maintain some form of defensive stability simply cannot win, and given this issue did nothing but worsen throughout the campaign, it is one which was inevitably going to damn Barça to the Europa League.
A battle never worth fighting in the first place
Barcelona once boasted the purest form of positional play known to mankind. The Catalan giants would annihilate their rivals with swashbuckling football, leaving all opponents gasping for the last bits of air they could come in contact with come the final whistle.
This was a team that instilled fear into all who would come up against them, but for some years, this has ceased to be the case. The tables have crudely turned, and it is now Barça cowering in fear at the prospect of facing proper opposition in Europe.
When comparing the Blaugrana to the rest of Europe’s heavyweights, the team is at a significant disadvantage from a tactical and technical standpoint. They do not yet have the firepower to compete with their continental counterparts equally, a reality that has repeatedly been hammered into the team’s psyche by their repetitive yet monumental disqualifications from the Champions League.
There is simply no comparison, individual or collective, between Barça and the Bayerns of the world. Without question, this is the calibre of team that the two-time treble winners would have to face if they’d advance to the round of sixteen.
It is perhaps a question born out of pessimism, but would there have been any legitimate value in making it into the next round in the Champions League if this would be the level of opposition?
Unless, of course, the club was run by people actively deriving pleasure from humiliating defeats every single year without exception — which we know it isn’t —, then advancing to the next round was realistically worth nothing.
The team’s mentality has been on a constant decline in the past few years as a result of these thrashings. It has come to the point that every single goal conceded brings back traumatic memories of this not so distant past, to the detriment of everyone involved. It leads to constant capitulations even against the weakest of rivals, case in point the struggling Celta de Vigo in Barcelona’s striking three-all draw away from home.
If there is nothing but torment in one competition, and in another, there is a possibility of refuge, why not take the objectively better option? It’s all about picking ones battles, and the Champions League was a losing one.
A chance at redemption
The Europa League and the Champions League are incomparable in terms of the prestige and honour. One is habitually seen as the tournament for the second-tier teams, while the other is perceived to be the biggest club competition in the world.
The arguments against the former may or may not be fair, though the objective truth is that it is a comparatively less significant title to win.
In Barcelona’s case, beggars simply cannot be choosers. The Catalans’ prospects at continental silverware are anything but fathomable if the club is seeking Europe’s greatest club prize. If the team is looking to redeem some lost honour, then the Europa League is perhaps their best bet at doing so.
A complaint often used against the tournament is the overwhelming presence of ‘whipping boys’, which supposedly take value away from the tournament proper.
Fans are more enthusiastic about watching two heavyweight teams from Europe’s top five leagues battle it out till the final seconds of a match than they are to see a pair of Eastern European teams go neck and neck.
The argument holds little value, as many of said teams are eliminated in the group stages. Come the knockouts, some of Europe’s best teams easily capable of competing in the Champions League’s latter stages, remain.
The Europa League, in this case, offers itself as a blessing in the sense that the team can face other rivals of similar if not slightly higher calibre than themselves, without the possibility of suffering the mental damage they incurred in batterings such as that of August 2020.
Against possibly the likes of RB Leipzig, Atalanta, West Ham, Zenit, and Napoli to start with, Xavi Hernandez will get a chance to showcase the team’s growth against competitive sides, as well as possibly instil a winning spirit into the team.
In addition to winning the Europa League, the goal might be to recover some long lost morale by winning a respectable piece of silverware against more than competent opponents.
Throwing an inexperienced swimmer in the deep end is not the way to go if the intention is to teach one how to swim. If Barcelona were to qualify for the round of sixteen, not a single lesson would be learnt from teams that would make nothing but mockeries out of them.
In the short term, the team gets to redeem past errors, and longer-term, the Blaugrana are offered a chance at building a team for the future with a winning foundation. This is something that simply cannot go wrong.
A more realistic chance at Champions League qualification
As it stands, La Liga is well and truly lost for FC Barcelona. The Catalans currently lie a staggering 18 points off the top of the table in fifteen matches, leaving little to no hope of winning the title.
With regards to a Champions League place, even that remains largely uncertain. Barça are currently winning a little over a point-per-game in the Primera, a trend which seems nowhere near conclusion.
At 8th, the only European competition the Garnet and Blue can realistically aim for, right now, through the league table, is the UEFA Europa League and the Conference League.
The likes of Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla, Real Sociedad and the surprise package in Real Betis are comparatively much better managed than the current Barcelona. Given this disparity in quality, both from a tactical and technical standpoint, the odds of Barcelona making it to Europe’s premier club competition via the traditional means are disparagingly low.
Through the Europa League, Barcelona can alternatively qualify for Europe. As is the competition format, the winner of the Europa League gains automatic qualification into the Champions League.
This would be a dub for La Liga as a division. Should Barcelona fail to finish in the top four, the potential Europa League triumph could mean that the Spanish division has five representatives in the Champions League.
For Barça as a club, playing 11 Europa League matches against reasonably competitive sides will serve as sufficient tactical training for Xavi Hernandez and his band of merry men. The financial benefits of winning the Europa League and qualifying for the Champions League are additional incentives to play in the second tier.
Scouting the competition
While Barcelona fans can joke and be embarrassed about reaching the Europa League, it is a highly competitive environment. Teams from across the continent use this competition to bring forth an exciting opportunity for their fans to see them taking on the best.
Last season itself, there were three teams from outside the top five leagues in the quarter-finals, and the eventual winners — Villarreal —, finished 7th in La Liga.
It is, predictably, a steep incline for Barcelona. While they have nearly two months to sort their team before embarking on this new journey, it’ll not be duck soup. But who are their main rivals en-route the trophy?
As one would expect, given Barcelona’s sour luck (and external circumstances), they drew arguably the toughest of the rivals the competition could offer — Napoli.
The Naples outfit have been in excellent form all season, sitting fourth in the league, just four off the top. They, like Sevilla, have the best defence of the division with just 13 goals conceded. They have been in top form on the front foot as well, scoring 34 goals in 17 games.
Under a new coach — Luciano Spalleti—those numbers are extremely impressive.
Napoli have a jewel-studded team at their disposal, with names like Lorenzo Insigne, Victor Osimhen, Fabian Ruiz, Dries Mertens, Kalidou Koulibaly, among others headlining it. Not to mention Barça’s old foe Konstantinos Manolas.
Unfortunately for the Catalan giants, the Europa League draw will not be redone. And Napoli stands in their way as the first hurdle in a long, tedious marathon.
The final of the Europa League for this season is set to take place in Seville – the city that has almost unanimously become the home for the competition. Sevilla boast a staggering six EL trophies, with the recent one coming in the 2019/20 season.
And surprise, surprise, they finished third in the Champions League group stages, like Barça, dropping to their favourite competition.
Sitting second in the league, Sevilla have been excellent all season. They have only been defeated twice so far, one of them coming against top-of-the-table Real Madrid.
And while their 26 goals are the lowest among the top four, Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos have been monumental for them at the back. Their record of 11(!) goals conceded in 16 games is the best in Spain and the joint second-best across the top five leagues.
Julien Lopetegui’s men are, undoubtedly, the favourites for the title. Technically, they may not be the strongest side, but their almost tunnel vision-like experience makes them threatening for the rest.
Elsewhere, an Erling Haaland-led Borussia Dortmund can also be labelled as contenders. The Norwegian is a powerhouse in attack and can single-handedly dismantle opposition defences.
Marco Reus has been excellent all season as well, scoring four goals and setting up four in the league. Not to mention the sensational Jude Bellingham, who was only bested by Pedri in the race for Golden Boy.
With Marco Rose sitting on the touchlines, they have one of the most attack-minded thinking coaches in Europe. The German has been pivotal in bringing out the best in Julian Brandt, Emre Can, and even Mahmoud Dahoud.
Their squad superimposes that of Barcelona’s, especially in the attack, where they have the likes of Donyell Mallen and Thorgan Hazard in the wings, ready to pounce.
David Moyes has, against all odds, transformed West Ham into one of the best teams in England. The Hammers sit fourth only to Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea in the league and are considered one of the favourites for the Europa League.
Michail Antonio is a ticking time bomb that explodes on his choosing. He’s scored six goals in the division and has set up an additional four. At ten, his direct goal contribution tally is on par with Jamie Vardy and Mason Mount and bested only by Mohamed Salah (23) and Emmanuel Dennis (12).
Pablo Fornals, Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma, and Manuel Lanzini are excellent contemporaries who have stepped up to the task to keep up West Ham’s run of form.
Behind them, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek form one of the finest double-pivots in the continent. The former is excellent at driving the ball through lines of pressure, while the latter is almost unmarkable through his third-man runs and demigod-like build.
As a certain football fan-favourite Twitter account would say: Tartan Diego Simeone’s massive bastards are winning it all.
Looking at the Ligue 1 table, one would think AS Monaco are pretty harmless. And one would be correct. If one were playing in the league, that is. They have been different gravy in the Europa League, though.
Nico Kovac was handed inarguably the group of death, drawn against Real Sociedad and PSV Eindhoven. Cool as a breeze, though, they topped the group unbeaten, with three wins and draws each.
While the likes of Kevin Volland, Sofiane Diop, and Aleksandr Golovin were crucial during this, most of the credit must go to their defence. Caio Henrique, Benoit Badiashile, and Ruben Aguilar were some of the best performers en-route two clean sheets in six games.
Atalanta have emerged as one of the most exciting teams in Europe across the last few seasons. Their relentless vertical and attacking football has sent shivers down top clubs’ spines.
While they are as brilliant as ever in Serie A, Gian Piero Gasperini’s men crumbled in the Champions League this season. Fortunately for them, though, they are one of the favourites for the Europa League title.
Duvan Zapata has been his usual self, scoring nine goals and assisting four, while Ruslan Malinovyski, Mario Pasalc, Davide Zappacosta have also had their fair share of time in the spotlight.
On their day, La Dea can take on and emphatically beat any side in Europe. Is the EL crown theirs for the taking? Only time will tell.
Much like Atalanta, Leipzig are a ferocious offensive unit. They have built a reputation as one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe, and their success, despite their relative inexperience, is built on that mentality.
In Andre Silva, they have a superb poacher, complemented by creators such as Emil Forsberg, Dominik Szoboszlai, Dani Olmo, Angelino, and the brilliant Christopher Nkunku.
While Leipzig were heavily underperforming under old coach Jesse Marsch, they seem to be back to their best since firing him. They even registered a 2-1 win against Manchester City in the UCL, which should be enough to take them seriously.
Sitting ninth in their league, but among the top of Social Media rankings is Spartak Moskow. Well, that’s not entirely true. They also finished top in one of the most brutal groups in the Europa League this season, seeing off Napoli and Leicester City in the process.
Quincy Promes and Aleksandr Sobolev have formed a tremendous bond in the attack, which has been visible across their competitions. The duo contributed to 70% of their goals in the group and 50% in the league.
They are quick on the break, and as could be seen with their win against Napoli, can come through with grit at the back when need be.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis have proven to be a real jack in the box this season. They beat Barcelona last weekend to climb up the charts in La Liga and now sit third, a point adrift runners up spot.
All this, while staying true to their principles of flowing attacking football, is remarkable. They have scored the second-most goals in the league – 30 while conceding just 18. Not to mention, they’ve hit the woodwork nine times (second-highest) in the process.
Led by Juanmi, Betis will hope to end their derby rivals, Sevilla’s stranglehold on the Europa League and bring it to a different stadium in Seville. And judging by their 4-0 win against Real Sociedad on Sunday, it’s more than possible.
This season provides no guarantees whatsoever with regards to UCL football next season. If Barcelona have an opportunity to qualify for it, even though supposedly less ‘honourable’ means, then they should take it with open arms. It would be better to sacrifice six months now than a year next season, would it not?
The untrodden path is probably more tempting than ever for those in garnet and blue. An opportunity to carve their footprints in the fresh soil. And why should they not venture forward?
Written by Michael Gatighe and Udhav Arora