Barcelona made it all about the Champions League and after surrendering La Liga to Real Madrid, now it is all they have left. Winning the title last season for the eighth time in 11 years was never going to be enough. Winning the double had not been either the year before. La Liga and the Copa del Rey had become Barca’s default, their domestic dominance taken for granted and then diminished by disappointment in Europe.
A mess of a season could still be saved by the Champions League but even the most optimistic of fans expect the worst against Bayern Munich, Barcelona’s probable opponents in the quarter-finals.
Many, including Lionel Messi, are worried even about getting past Napoli, with the pandemic-delayed last 16 matchup poised at 1-1. “I said long ago that if we continued in this way, it would be very difficult to win the Champions League and that has been shown to be the case in La Liga too,” said a frustrated Messi after the loss to Osasuna on Thursday.
“If we want to fight for the Champions League we will have to change a lot because otherwise the match against Napoli, we will lose that as well.”
Just over a year on from almost winning the treble, Barcelona look set to finish without a trophy of any kind for the first time in 12 years.
And yet the concern is not so much the many failures of this season but the possibility they could be just the start.
Messi is 33 and his anger is directed primarily at the board, whose leadership has left Barcelona with a team seemingly neither for the present nor the future.
There has been no succession plan for Messi since Neymar joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2018 and that world record fee has been squandered on players that have failed to settle or been sold to balance the books.
Antoine Griezmann bought for 120 million euros, left Atletico Madrid for the Camp Nou and what he thought would be the pinnacle of his club career. Yet earlier this month, he was reduced to coming off the bench, against Atletico, in injury-time.
And it is not just Messi nearing the end. Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba are all 31 or older.
Off the pitch, political blunders have angered the dressing room, with Messi issuing a public rebuke to sporting director Eric Abidal in February over the sacking of Ernesto Valverde.
Removing Valverde might have been understandable last summer after two successful years appeared to have run their course.
But a change mid-season, with Barca top of the table, and to a coach like Quique Setien, whose ideas need time to be absorbed, now looks reckless.
Setien has admitted managing a squad like Barcelona’s has been a challenge for him. He has intimated that some players need to think more about the team.
He has made mistakes too and it remains to be seen if he pays with his job. Bartomeu has said Setien will stay for the Champions League but the 2-1 home defeat by Osasuna intensified the doubts.
“I hope so,” said Setien, when asked on Thursday if he would be in charge next month.
But with presidential elections at the club to come next year, the position is not an attractive one for an elite coach.
If Bartomeu’s successor loses, Victor Font, a rival candidate, wants to appoint Xavi Hernandez. It means either Setien or his replacement face the prospect of one full season in the job, all the while lacking either authority or certainty in the long term.
Zinedine Zidane has shown what can be done with an ageing Real squad that appears dead on its feet. But it is hard to see who could perform an equivalent rescue act at Barca or who would be prepared to do it with this board still in place.
Without money to spend in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the answer could be to turn again to youth, with Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati already breaking through this season.
Yet in a dysfunctioning team, desperate to win before Messi retires, that approach offers no guarantees.
Messi’s clock hangs over everything, with every failure enhanced by the sense that the club’s greatest ever player is being wasted. The biggest worry now is it could get even worse.
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