“Every good thing comes to an end and nothing lasts forever” – or so the common saying goes.
But beyond the cliché catchphrase, there is an element of truth that relates to current trajectory of FC Barcelona and that will certainly resonate with their supporters and those that closely follow Spanish football.
No team has dominated football both domestically and in European competitions as Barcelona have since the turn of the century. Characterised by their unique tiki-taka style of play and led by the iconic figure of Lionel Messi, the Catalan side have won eight La Liga titles, the Copa del Ray four times, and experienced four Champions League triumphs in the last thirteen years. The club has been an all-conquering powerhouse of world football with the Camp Nou being the cathedral where followers of the beautiful game have converged to see the magic for themselves first hand.
But that cathedral is starting to crumble and the empire is showing signs of disintegration.
No love shown in Paris
Barcelona were ruthlessly dismantled by Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie last week. Luis Enrique’s team were outplayed, out-thought and out-fought on a cold night at the Parc des Princes, and in truth the 4-0 scoreline could have been much more severe had it not been for March-Andre ter Stegen, who produced a number of impressive saves. In a city renowned for romance, PSG showed no love as they dispatched the Catalonians with astonishing ease and composure.
There were no excuses for Barcelona. There was no controversial refereeing decision. No lack of luck. No mitigating circumstances. They were simply well-beaten by a superior side.
The ineptitude of the performance was demonstrated by two defining moments.
The first, when Lionel Messi was dispossessed deep in his own half and stood unconcerned as PSG waltzed through the defensive line to score, showed an uncharacteristic lack of interest from the diminutive Argentinian. The second, when the whistle sounded to signal the start of the second half, Barcelona lost possession within five seconds of taking the kick off.
The magic of Messi was missing. The once famed possession-based tiki-taka style of play was nowhere to be seen.
Victory for PSG more or less confirmed their place in the next round of the Champions League, barring a complete capitulation at the Camp Nou in the return leg, and it is difficult to see how Barcelona could overturn such a formidable score line. To highlight the challenge that Luis Enrique’s side will face in just over one weeks’ time, they managed just one shot on target at the Parc des Princes.
A loss of identity
The manner of the defeat in Paris came as a shock to most of the footballing world, but to many onlookers in Spain, it came as little surprise.
Barcelona are a club that have begun to experience problems both on the field and behind the scenes. An early exit from the Champions League at the hands of PSG is nothing more than a culmination of issues coming to a head at the same time.
Off the pitch, there have been five directors of communication within the last decade and the club’s scatter-gun transfer strategy has come under fierce scrutiny. The majority of the recent signings (barring the arrivals of Neymar and Luis Suarez) have left supporters underwhelmed and there is certainly nothing to suggest that the current Barcelona squad possesses any real strength in depth. They have an ageing midfield, with the iconic figure of Xavi yet to be replaced whilst Andres Iniesta does not have a protégé waiting to take up his mantle when he retires. More concerning is that there is currently no senior right-back available for selection and the La Masia talent pool suddenly appears to have gone dry – academy graduates are no longer breaking into the first team.
On the pitch, things do not look much better. Barcelona are second in La Liga despite playing two more matches than Real Madrid whilst they stumbled to a 2-1 victory against Leganes at the weekend, courtesy of a last minute penalty. Luis Enrique has been accused of not having a tactical plan and it is hard to disagree. There remains an over-reliance on Lionel Messi to pull the team out of trouble, whilst the tiki-taka style of play has been neglected so that the attacking trident of Neymar, Suarez and the Argentinian can play with freedom. In short, Enrique has sacrificed the club’s identity so that his three star forwards can flourish – but emphasising individual talent over the collective effectiveness of the team is never going to end well.
End of an era?
So what now for Barcelona?
The simple answer is that the summer will likely bring significant changes both on and off the pitch.
Luis Enrique is now likely to depart with a new manager being brought in who will reinstate the club’s original philosophy. The only saving grace for the Spaniard will be if he can overturn Real Madrid’s lead at the top of La Liga and secure the Copa del Ray, yet even then that may not be enough to preserve his job. Pressure from the Catalonian media, supporters and some players suggests that managerial change will occur sooner rather than later.
Lionel Messi has yet to sign a new contract with his existing deal set to expire in just over a year. The Argentinian has not demonstrated any desire to depart the Camp Nou but his failure to commit his long-term future to the club will have a number of board members shuffling uncomfortably in their seats until pen is put to paper. There have been suggestions that Barcelona are willing to cash in on one of their attacking superstars and it would be no surprise if one of Messi (unlikely), Suarez or Neymar were allowed to depart to raise funds for an overhaul of the currently playing squad. There is little doubt that the team requires new impetus and needs to be freshened up.
“Everything good comes to an end”.
Time will tell if this is the end of Barcelona’s domination of European football.
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