Barcelona could not have faced PSG at a better time, for the capital outfit are going through similar problems as the Blaugranas, and are at the nadir of their powers.
Barcelona’s loss to Juventus frightened Culés for many reasons, and rightly so. First, the system on show against the Old Lady was abysmal. The Catalans suffered a humiliating defeat at Camp Nou, and it was partly because of their tactics. Also, the result meant Cristiano Ronaldo’s teammates would leapfrog Barcelona in the group and top it.
After finishing in the second place in the group for the first time since 2006, the sleeping giants feared most group toppers. Realistically, sides like Bayern Munich, Liverpool or Manchester City could have obliterated Ronald Koeman’s men. Following the humiliations against Bayern, Liverpool, and AS Roma, there was only so much that the fan could take.
The draw for the Champions League round of 16 took place on Monday, after Barça’s shaky win against Levante. Thankfully for the five-time Champions League winners, Bayern got Lazio, Liverpool got RB Leipzig, and the draw pitted Marco Rose’s Borussia Monchengladbach and Pep Guardiola’s City.
Not getting the three best group winners was a relief for the Culés. However, the Catalans drew a familiar face this time: Paris Saint-Germain.
The Parisians reached the Champions League final in 2020. They lost it narrowly to Bayern, who beat Barcelona 8-2 en route to the treble. After getting such a clement draw, compared to what could have been sides, Barça are under a lot less pressure.
Paris and Barça have a bit of a history in the competition. Ever since QSI took over the French capital’s club, they have dreamt about winning Europe’s premier competition. The “Rêvons plus grand” (Dream bigger) slogan has echoed in the French capital, in the voice of, Nasser Al-Khelaifi wanting to make of PSG the best team in the world. Barcelona have stopped them thrice.
Barça were ruthless with the Nouveau Riche French champions in 2013, 2015, and 2017. In 2013, they eliminated a competent PSG side on away goals. Then, prime Luis Suares showed David Luiz no mercy nestling two shots into the goals. Finally, Neymar became Paris’ butcher in the 6-1 Remontada in 2017.
It would be fair to say that PSG would not like to play against the La Liga side. However, the Barça sides from yesteryear are a far cry from what Ronald Koeman has managed to conjure.
Koeman’s men are eighth in the league and have only drawn Paris because they finished second in the group. They have started the season appallingly, and the eyebrows have begun to be raised over the Dutchman’s future already.
Crisis in Paris
With their captain not wanting to be at the club, and linked with PSG themselves, and a squad bereft of confidence and tactics, chances looks bleak for Barcelona. How can Barcelona have any hope ahead of this tie?
Well, after talking about the weak Catalans’ woes, it is time to look at Thomas Tuchel’s men’s problems. The French champions have issues all over the pitch, which, if they can improve in time, then they will surely beat Barça, but the path is long and unbewildered.
First of all, Tuchel is lost at the Parc des Princes. The German coach received lots of criticism from the French fanbase because he has simply not done a good enough job. The French press and fans feel like the coach is too lucky and that his tactical system is incoherent on a lot of levels.
His tactical choices have cost him a lot. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United tactically outclassed the French side away in Paris. Tuchel played a midfield bereft of creativity and a defence arguably shakier than Barça’s.
Moving away from the United game, PSG had two abysmal performances against RB Leipzig. The Germans heavily dominated the Frenchmen, and they deserved more than the results they got. Away in France, they lost to a generous penalty and bad finishing from their part.
They were rather lucky to finish top of their group even though they were nowhere good enough, with the same shortcomings mirroring themselves in Ligue 1.
Usually, Neymar and co. dominate the league to a fault by this point of the competition. They obliterate it and are crowned Champions by March. After that, they can focus on the Champions League.
This time around, Paris are part of a title race. Lille have attained momentum, and are first in Ligue 1, while Olympique Lyonnais just beat PSG at the Parc des Princes, and even Marseille could be top after their two games in hand.
This scenario looks just like the 2017 season. Monaco had a stunning year and won Ligue 1 that campaign. Unai Emery’s PSG, utterly lost, shipped six goals to Luis Enrique’s defective Blaugranas. This year, PSG do not look like one of Europe’s biggest forces, and they do not even have Ligue 1 secured to focus on one competition.
They lost their first Classique in 10 years against Marseille at home. Moreover, Lens beat them at the start of the term. Bordeaux could have beaten them had they not missed their finishing boots, while Monaco came back from 2-0 down to beat Tuchel’s men 3-2. Finally, Lyon dominated the play away from home to overtake them in the league.
These results stem from the manager’s tactics, but the current institutional crisis in Paris does not help. Leonardo came back as chief executive in 2019 but looks a shadow of his former self. The Leonardo of 2011 assembled a promising squad and managed to get Carlo Ancelotti, a world-class coach for the Parisians.
In his second year, Leonardo brought in Danilo Pereira, who is yet to replicate his earlier form, a promising but lost striker in Moise Kean, a complacent Mauro Icardi and Alessandro Florenzi.
Leonardo has started a war of words with Tuchel over the preferred postion of Pereira. The Brazilian looks like he will be unable to reassemble a PSG side as incredible as the one he assembled nearly a decade ago.
After looking at the inadequacy of PSG’s board and manager, it is time to analyse the players. In the end, if they can show their quality against Barça despite all the adversity, they might go on and reach the promised land.
For Kylian Mbappe, it feels like the precocious Frenchman has stagnated in recent year. After getting his wanted number 9 position, Mbappé looked like a shadow of his winger self. The 21-year-old went through a goal drought in the Champions League and did not score for 10 games. When Neymar won a penalty against Istanbul Basaksehir, he gave it to Mbappé, almost too generously.
Do not get it wrong, the World Cup winner is still an insane talent. He usually terrorises Ligue 1 sides, and he has stagnated, not regressed. Fans and pundits thought Mbappé would become a better player than he is now, but he is still performing at a level which is still more than acceptable, and enough to pull a dagger through the Blaugrana heart.
Now, let’s look at Neymar. The Brazilian is one of the best players in the world. And you need not look further than the game against Atalanta to prove that. The winger has nearly perfected his game, and he is Paris’s hope when things go south, and he demonstrated it against Borussia Dortmund last year.
The Brazilian scored in both legs to get his side through after Erling Braut Haaland showed no mercy in the same game. When Neymar is at his best, he is arguably the best player in the world.
However, his return to the Camp Nou might be in jeopardy. As PSG lost to Lyon, Thiago Mendes went in with a reckless tackle and Neymar was stretchered off. Reports are saying that the talisman might be out for thee weeks, but it looks far from official, which is scary for the Parisians, who do not look like the same team without the #10.
All in all, Paris Saint-Germain, while not being the best side to face with Barça’s shortcomings, are not as terrifying as others. A good result against PSG and qualification to the Quarters will help the Catalans go on a good run in the Champions League, the Catalans dearly need their confidence back.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.