“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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Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge
Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.
A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.
However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.
Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…
Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends
But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.
That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.
As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.
Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.
The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.
Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.
Third time lucky for impressive Willian
The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.
But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.
It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.
He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.
Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.
Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.
It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.
Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?
Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say
It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.
Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.
Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.
However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.
A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.
Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.
It could be the decisive moment.
Who are the five most valuable players under the age of 21?
The CIES Football Observatory have produced a list of the 100 most valuable players under the age of 21 and it makes for interesting reading, with three Premier League players in the top five.
CIES are a research group based within the International Centre for Sports Studies. It was created in 2005 and has looks to specialise in the statistical analysis of football, which is a growing field within the sport.
A lot of their studies are based in the financial side of the game and given the continued increase of transfer fees, they produce a lot of information that is of interest to clubs.
This particular study focuses on the top five leagues and it won’t come as a surprise that the Premier League features heavily.
Here are the five most valuable under-21 players according to the CIES study:
5 – Marcus Rashford (€116.7 million)
Amid all the spending that Manchester United have done in recent seasons, the value of producing your own players through your academy continues to be shown in the Manchester United squad. It is important to their supporters to have homegrown players and Marcus Rashford is one of the best that they have produced in recent seasons. According to CIES, he is already worth more than £100 million and it is remarkable to think that he may not have been given a chance if it wasn’t for injuries to Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
It has been a good start to the season for Marcus Rashford as he continues to get significant minutes, despite the arrival of Romelu Lukaku. Across the Premier League and Champions League, he has contributed six goals and four assists. His goal involvement is one every 113.8 minutes. Considering he has been used in various positions and not played every week, this is impressive. United need to continue showing faith in him. If they do, the sky is the limit.
4 – Ousmane Dembele (€120.4 million)
The French winger made headlines during the summer, as he was selected to be the replacement for Neymar at Barcelona. There is a lot of pressure on the 20-year-old to live up to his price tag, which was £135.5 million. There were clauses included in the deal, but the overall value is more than the £120.4 million that he has been estimated at by CIES. However, there were circumstances driving that. Namely, the desperate position of Barcelona.
Last season, he was one of the best players in the Bundesliga as he contributed eight goals and 18 assists across the two major competitions. His goal involvement was one every 108.2 minutes, which underlines why Barcelona were keen to buy him this season. An injury has hindered him at the beginning of his La Liga career, but he remains one of the most exciting young players in the game.
3 – Leroy Sane (€124.5 million)
The £37 million that Manchester City paid for the German international is looking more and more like a bargain with every passing day. CIES value the winger at €124.5 million and that underlines the improvement he has made under Pep Guardiola. He is now one of the most devastating attackers in the Premier Leaguer and it will be fascinating to see how much further he can go, as he is only 21.
His record in the Premier League this season has been remarkable and he is well on his way to contributing at least ten goals and ten assists. Sane is already on six goals and six assists, with a goal involvement every 78.75 minutes. The quality of the team helps him, but his own performances have contributed significantly to the success of City.
2 – Dele Alli (€180.2 million)
It has been a difficult start to the new season for Dele Alli, but he remains one of the most exciting players in the world. In the list of these five players, the England international is the most attainable for the biggest clubs in Europe, as Tottenham have the lowest chance of winning major trophies. It will take a huge fee to secure the midfielder and the valuation of €180.2 million from CIES is around the fee that Spurs would expect.
Since joining Tottenham as a teenager, he has been a revelation and scored 28 goals during his first two Premier League seasons. This season has been harder as he has only three goals in 15 matches, but he was always going to go through a drop-off in form at some point. The test will be how he recovers. The next few months will show us how far Alli can go in the game.
1- Kylian Mbappe (€182.8 million)
The valuation from CIES is fractionally higher than the reported fee that PSG will pay for the teenager next summer when his transfer is made permanent. He was a revelation last season and played a major role in Monaco winning Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League semi-finals. PSG have made the move to sign him and he could become the best player in the world at the club if he is managed correctly.
This season hasn’t been as eye-catching as his debut season in senior football, but he has been very impressive still, especially when his age is taken into consideration. He has contributed nine goals and seven assists across the two major competitions, with a goal involvement of 86.5 minutes. This is incredible, but there have been some critics as he isn’t as noticeable playing alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar. He is clearly the best young player in the world and this list from CIES reflects that.
The conductor of the Barcelona orchestra: Reflecting on the career of Xavi Hernandez
Barcelona is an iconic city. FC Barcelona is an iconic football club. The Nou Camp is an iconic football stadium that has been graced by the presence of countless prestigious and legendary players over the last century.
The esteemed names roll off the tongue. Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Pep Guardiola, Johan Cryuff – the list in almost inexhaustible.
Even amidst the glamour, sensationalism and capitalist ideology of modern football Barcelona have entertained the world through the magic dust sprinkled by Lionel Messi with the supporting cast of Luis Suarez and, prior to the summer, Brazilian superstar Neymar.
However, among the stellar names it is hard to identify an individual who has won more trophies and influenced the very essence of the game itself than Xavi Hernandez.
No other Spaniard in the history of football has lifted more trophies. No other player in the history of Barcelona has made more appearances. No other player has been as synonymous with the development of a club.
He is truly a legend of the game.
The conductor of the orchestra
Xavi Hernandez first joined Barcelona via the club’s La Masia academy as an 11-year-old, where he swiftly proceeded to rise through the ranks. He was technically efficient, intelligent and appeared to possess an instinctive awareness of when, and more importantly how, to alter or influence the rhythm and flow of the game. When he was handed his first team debut in 1998 he seamlessly slotted into the side.
However, Xavi developed into much more than just another star player. He represented the definitive transformation of Barcelona during the early twentieth century and he embodied the new total football philosophy that was implemented and progressed by a series of managers, culminating in the tiki-taka style of play that was fine-tuned by Pep Guardiola.
He was synonymous with the possession-based football that led to Barcelona dominating European football for almost a decade and played a pivotal role in the club’s development.
Whilst other players produced exuberant moments of skill or brilliance he adopted a different style of play that was crucial to the tiki-taka philosophy. You would rarely see Xavi dribble beyond a player and he was never a regular goal scorer from midfield, but his contribution was no less important.
He was the conductor of the Barcelona footballing orchestra, dictating the flow and rhythm of the game with a range of elegant, measured passes. When he received the ball he never looked flustered or unsure and there was an air of confidence and assertiveness that made him attract the ball, like a flame attracts a moth.
He stroked the ball around the pitch unperturbed by the pressure of the occasion or the state of the game – when Xavi played well, so did Barcelona.
By the time that Xavi departed Barcelona, joining Qatari side Al-Sadd in 2015, he won eight La Liga titles (the first coming in 1999), the Copa del Rey three times, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups, two Club World Cups and four Champions League titles.
However, he was equally as impressive for the Spanish national team, playing in four World Cup tournaments and three European Championships. His haul of 133 caps is a record for a Spanish outfield player and he lifted two European Championships (2008 and 2012) and one World Cup (2010) during an era in which he became the embodiment of domestic and international dominance.
The very best of a generation
As with every great player, a decline eventually began to set in and Xavi Hernandez’s powers began to wane. It is perhaps testament to his importance and influence that his departure has coincided with the gradual deterioration of Barcelona’s authority in world football.
In 2015 he joined Qatari club Al-Sadd after agreeing a three-year deal, in essence taking a step into semi-retirement, and in April 2017 he won his first trophy – the Qatar Cup. In addition to his playing commitments, Xavi is also undertaking his coaching qualifications and has taken up an ambassadorial role in order to promote the 2020 World Cup as he ultimately begins to plan for a career beyond the realms of playing football.
Xavi’s impact and influence at Barcelona and for the Spanish national team is arguably unparalleled for a player in the modern era. His style of play was unique and embodied the emergence of a new tiki-taka, total football philosophy which came to dominate domestic and international football for over a decade. Whilst he became a genuine icon, Xavi always avoided controversy or contradiction and is looked upon with respect and admiration by his peers and all those connected with the game.
It is little wonder that the conductor is regarded as one of the very best players of his generation.
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