Another extremely disappointing UEFA Champions League campaign for Barcelona has come to an end. After a splendid start against minnows Viktoria Plzeň (5-1 Win), Barça could only manage 1 point out of a possible 12 against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. How much is coach Xavi Hernández to be blamed for this? Should Barça already sack him? Xavi Out? Let’s analyse this with a cool and calm mind rather than following the over reactionary mass.
A nightmare of a UCL campaign
Barça began their Champions League season with a dominating win over Czech champions Viktoria Plzeň. They are not the strongest team and it was a very comfortable win. Lewandowski scored a hattrick. Following that, Barça travelled to Munich to face German giants Bayern Munich. Barça’s record against them was/is atrocious. But the Blaugrana took the game to Bayern in the first half and were by far the better side. Lewandowski missed some great chances – chances which he normally scores. Pedri missed a great chance in the second half too. A clear penalty for a foul by Davies on Dembélé was not given. Bayern scored early in the second half and Barça’s omnipresent psychological demons appeared again. Bayern quickly got a second and there was no way back. The performance was way better than what we have seen in previous years but still nothing to show for.
Losing in Milan
The next two games against Inter Milan became very important following the loss to Bayern. Barcelona travelled to Italy without Koundé and Araújo, who got injured during the international break. This was perhaps the only game for which Xavi Hernández deserves heavy criticism. He played Raphinha as a left inside forward, limiting both him and the team, while Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati were on the bench. The performance overall was very bad. Barça were overly dependent on Dembélé’s crosses and he had a really bad game. Andreas Christensen got injured during the game, piling on to the injury crisis in defence. Calhanoglu scored the only goal of the game. But again, Barça were on the receiving side of some shocking refereeing decisions. And guess what, the VAR for both the Bayern and Inter games was the same. Pedri had a goal controversially ruled out, a clear red card for a high stud-showing tackle by Calhanoglu on Busquets was not given. And in the dying moments, one of the clearest handballs you will ever see was not given as a penalty. The game ended 1-0 in Inter’s favour.
Losing the tie at home
The home game against Inter became a must win game. Koundé, Araujo and Christensen – all missed out through injuries. Barça had a very good first half, and led 1-0 at half-time with a goal from Dembélé. They had controlled the game very well until the 50th minute, when Gerard Piqué shockingly played Barella onside and Inter equalised. After this, Barça’s lack of mentality and composure got exposed again. Inter soon scored a second. Busquets gave the ball away cheaply and some very poor defending by Eric García allowed Lautaro Martinez to score. Lewandowski equalised but Inter scored again to lead 3-2. Lewandowski scored a brilliant header to equalise again and to make it 3-3. It was a brilliant game to watch for the neutrals but Barça’s qualification hopes were left hanging by a thread.
Inter then comfortably defeated Viktoria Plzeň at home which sealed Barça’s elimination from the Champions League. They dropped down to the Europa League for the second consecutive season.
How much blame does Xavi deserve for this? Well, just like the entire team he obviously deserves his fair bit of criticism but to call for ‘Xavi Out’ already is dubious.
The coach would never have imagined in his wildest dreams while planning for the season that he would have to play against Inter Milan with Gerard Piqué, Sergi Roberto, Marcos Alonso and Eric García in the backline. And against Bayern Munich [0-3 loss at home] with Bellerín and Marcos Alonso, that too playing as a centre-back. The plan was to have Koundé, Araujo and Christensen in defence and to pick one of the three left-backs. All clubs have to cope with injuries and even more so with this hectic schedule due to the upcoming World Cup. But no team has their three-starting centre-backs out together with injuries. Xavi had no choice but to use the players which he did and it was pivotal. Also, Xavi Hernández had planned the away game against Bayern very well. Barça were the better side but they just could not find the net. Any other day Barça would have won that game.
The home game against Bayern was a dead rubber. It is easy to scapegoat some players and the coach but it is nearly impossible to have the correct mindset for such a game and perform well knowing that the fate was already sealed.
It is easy to say that Barça should not be depending on refereeing decisions to win games, but practically it is not all that easy. The decisions which went against Barça do have massive implications psychologically as well as on the results. Imagine if VAR didn’t rule out Marcos Alonso’s goal in Chelsea vs Real Madrid last season and if Madrid didn’t get the two penalties they got against Manchester City. Would they have won the Champions League? Simply no. Same goes here too. Had even some of the decisions went in Barça’s favour, the outcome could have been different.
Tough starting point
Barcelona have had 4 different managers in the last 5 seasons. None of them have been able to overcome disasters in the Champions League. Valverde suffered two debacles in as many seasons. Setien lost 2-8 against Bayern. Koeman lost 0-3 to Juventus, 1-4 to PSG, 0-3 to both Bayern and Benfica. The team needs stability now. Coaches require time to get everything going well. We have seen good progress and improvement under Xavi but patience is needed to do it on a consistent basis. Barcelona have had some extremely good games under Xavi Hernández. Pep Guardiola needed over €500m spendings and over 2 years to win a trophy at Manchester City. Jürgen Klopp’s first trophy at Liverpool came 4 years after his appointment. Arsenal have need almost 3 years to finally get going under Mikel Arteta. Real Madrid had a dark phase in the from 2005-2014 as well.
Making so many new signings makes the team look very good on paper but on the field, it takes time to build the chemistry and cohesiveness. The core of the team is changing and will continue to do so next summer. It is a relatively young team as compared to some of the top teams in Europe. They are showing signs of taking the club in the right direction but, again, patience is needed. Trust the process, as they say.
No better options to coach Barcelona
Changing managers now would mean destabilising the club and the team once again. They are working on a project and with a set of ideas, and it must continue for the time being. It is a marathon and not a 100m sprint. Patience and trust is required. Juventus sacked Andrea Pirlo after only a season and now they are in deeper trouble under Max Allegri.
And realistically who are the managers available? Thomas Tuchel? He has a history of getting on bad terms with the club’s boards and then leaving. His stints at Dortmund, PSG and Chelsea were very short term. Moreover, Xavi Hernández managed to convince players like Raphinha and Koundé to join his project over that of Thomas Tuchel’s. Marcelo Gallardo? He has no experience of coaching in Europe. Appointing him at this stage would be a massive risk. He could easily turn into another Tata Martino. Marcelo Bielsa? He is a wonderful manager but has no experience of coaching a club as big as Barça.
Competing and trying to win La Liga must now be the priority for Barça. There are three other trophies to play for too – the Super Copa, Copa del Rey and the dreaded Europa League. There will be huge pressure on Xavi Hernández and the players to deliver.