Madrid (AFP) – “We need change from top to bottom,” Gerard Pique said but even he could not have predicted what followed as Barcelona, without Lionel Messi, reunite with Bayern Munich on Tuesday, a year on from the defeat that changed everything.
After the 8-2 loss by Bayern in the Champions League quarter-finals, Pique said Barca needed change of all kinds, “not just players and coaches, but structurally”, insisting “new blood” was needed. “We are not able to compete in Europe,” he said.
The humiliation felt like rock bottom, a brutal confirmation of mediocrity delivered by a club about to reach the summit of Europe against one no longer anywhere near it.
Pique demanded revolution but little has improved in the year since, the club’s financial horrors laid bare by Messi’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain, which has been harder to stomach for the fans than any thrashing on the pitch.
Ten days after the loss in Lisbon, Messi sent Barcelona the burofax stating his desire to leave and while he insisted it had nothing to do with the Bayern defeat, he also said they “had given off a very bad image. It was wrong.”
And so for the first time in almost two decades, Barca begin a Champions League campaign this week without their best ever player, who registered his first Champions League goal in 2005 and went on to score 120 in 149 games for them, against 41 different opponents, including seven hat-tricks.
Messi won four Champions Leagues in 10 years at Camp Nou but none in his last six and while he was far from blameless, every failure enhanced the sense of a historic career being wasted.
Whether the theory Messi’s absence will liberate others has merit remains to be seen but there is certainly less pressure now to succeed, even less than last season, when a gallant draw with PSG in the second leg came as something of a relief after a 4-1 loss in the first.
– Memphis face of new era? –
Dampened expectations could at least offer a more forgiving platform for Barca’s youngsters to thrive and others, like Memphis Depay and Ousmane Dembele, to step forward.
“Memphis can mark a new era at Barca,” said Koeman this week. “He has the things you need to be a success here: personality and character.”
If new blood was needed, Koeman has helped accelerate the transition as the likes of Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Sergino Dest and Ronald Araujo have risen in prominence, ready perhaps to lead themselves.
There have been departures too, 20 of them since the final whistle blew in Lisbon, not to mention the coach, with Quique Setien being swiftly replaced by Koeman. Five of those that played against Bayern in 2020 have gone.
It was the board Pique was targeting most and there has been wholesale change there as well, with Joan Laporta taking over as president and installing Mateu Alemany as the new director of football.
But Laporta’s first six months has been so consumed by keeping the club afloat, there have been precious few decisions aimed at taking it forward.
Last month, Laporta indicated the club’s total debts amounted to 1.35 billion euros, with player salaries 103 per cent of income, a figure now closer to 80 per cent after the transfer window. Saving, not improving, has been the priority.
The result is perhaps a club with better hopes for the future but a team that looks even worse than the one before and it would be a huge surprise if Barcelona troubled either the Champions League’s latter stages or primary contenders.
When Pique said they were “no longer able to compete in Europe” last year, there was anger in his voice but there is more of an acceptance now, an awareness that for now the pinnacle is almost certainly out of reach.
For Barcelona, the worst may be over but it could be a while before the good times return.
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