Football, like any sport, is only partly physical. A majority of the game, whether when making quick decisions on where to pass to or staying composed against a roaring opposition-crowd, is played in the head. Whereas one can reach optimal levels of physicality through intense practice and exercise, mental factors are not so easily fortified or sustained. A team can dominate and thrash their opponents one day while, on the next match-day, suffer an embarrassing loss. Nevertheless, concerns are well-founded when a team suffers the team fate over and over.
Barcelona’s struggles in the Champions League over the last few seasons are well documented. In the biggest of stages, the team faced hurdles they could never overcome. Big leads have been squandered, and they were practising their own worst enemies. The 4-1 drubbing to PSG was yet another sign that Barça have been haunted by past demons, but are things bound to change with this past week’s uplifting performances against Sevilla?
A History of Collapses
It all started in 2018 against Roma. After a dominant 4-1 win at home, the Blaugrana travelled to the Stadio Olimpico with hopes of reaching the Champions League semi-finals. What followed shocked the footballing world: they lost 3-0 and were eliminated on away goals.
The loss stuck with the team the following season (2018/19), where a recurring theme was to avenge that night and make sure it never repeated itself. The motivation was clearly doing its job. After beating Liverpool 3-0 at home in the Champions League semi-finals, Barcelona were potentially a few games away from winning the Treble.
In what lives on as one of the toughest nights for Cúles, the team lost 4-0 at Anfield. Despite Liverpool missing some key players like Mohamed Salah, Barça were overrun. A documentary (Matchday) that showed behind the scenes footage of that night revealed audio of players telling each other: “let’s not repeat what happened at Rome.”
The nightmare of the previous season was still etched in their brains until it became their reality once again. Furthermore, the team was only down 1-0 at half time, but the players were already dejected and alarmed.
Last August, the Catalans played Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the same competition, and the result was astounding. The 8-2 scoreline represented one of their worst ever defeats. In terms of quality on-paper, the teams were not six goals apart, but the German-side had more energy, fortitude, and desire than their opponents.
In the first leg against Paris Saint-Germain, history repeated itself once again. The Blaugrana were outmatched and could not cope with a team that, well, played like a team.
Koeman’s Shaky Start
Ronald Koeman arrived at a club in disarray, one teeming with financial struggles, transfers, and an underwhelming squad. They were wildly inconsistent in their first few months of action — even sitting 10th in the table at one point–and they had lost their games against “big teams.”
The question was, did they lose these games because of a lack of quality, or were the mental hurdles still insurmountable? While the squad is far from world-beating, the latter holds more significance. Defeats to Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Juventus, and Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa final were more than disheartening, but the team’s recent performances have turned heads.
Back-to-back wins against Sevilla
Simply put, it’s been a week full of brilliant performances from Barcelona. First, a critical 2-0 win at Sevilla in La Liga helped solidify their position near the top of the table. Koeman rolled the dice with a 3-5-2 formation, and it paid dividends.
Second, after losing the first-leg 2-0, the team needed a monumental comeback to make it to the Copa del Rey final, and they did just that, winning 3-0 at the Camp Nou. They rolled out in the same 3-5-2 shape, and more importantly, the same drive. The players had edge, intensity, and were entirely in-sync with one another – something we have not seen in a long time, particularly against this calibre of opposition.
Every pass was on-point, every defensive tackle was expertly timed, every loose ball was fought back for, every attack was clinical. It took 120 minutes of action, but the team did wonders and make giant strides in tearing down those mental hurdles.
Second leg vs. PSG
This Wednesday, Barça will travel to Paris to play the second-leg in the tie. They are down 4-1, so besides the seemingly far-fetched odds of another remontada, there are countless ways for Barça to come out of Paris feeling proud. Nonetheless, nothing is impossible.
Above all else, the team has to continue to trend in the right direction in terms of their unity and fighting-spirit. They have to start the game aggressively and keep their opponents on the back foot. PSG are by no means invincible, as evidenced by their second-place position in Ligue 1, and they are still missing Neymar Jr. There are holes in their backline that can be exploited, and the right tactics could nullify their attack.
Contrary to the second-leg losses against Roma and Anfield, Barça has nothing to lose. They enter this matchup as huge underdogs. As such, the pressure is almost nonexistent. They can afford to play the game their own way without thinking about reserving a lead or conceding an early goal. If that energy is properly harnessed, it could make them extremely dangerous. Yes, the mental hurdles of the past do still exist, but the players have the ability to surmount them.
Effort over Outcome
Win, lose or draw, all that matters is that it’s hard-fought. All Cúles want to see is the fighting-spirit that embodied so many iconic Barcelona teams of the past. You are only as strong as your weakest link, so the team has to play as one, and not the disjointed squad that lost 4-1.
Koeman: "We are Barcelona. Nothing is impossible." pic.twitter.com/OhHBcHApE1— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) March 9, 2021
They should ride the positive waves from last week’s performances against Sevilla and let that serve as a reminder that this team has all the fortitude necessary to overcome the odds. The losses against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich are all in the past, and they should keep it that way.
At the end of the day, it’s not whether you get knocked down, but whether you get up.