Very rarely does one single result bring the curtain down on an era, but that is what FC Barcelona’s 8-2 thrashing in the quarter-final of the Champions League did on Friday night.
Barca’s worst ever European defeat was a “historically ridiculous” according to the pro-Barca ‘El Mundo Deportivo’ newspaper and had veteran defender Gerard Pique tell TV cameras directly after the final whistle that it was “embarrassing.”
“We have touched bottom and it’s unacceptable,” added Pique after Barca had been outplayed, outrun and outfought in every area of the park by a Bayern side that looked, fitter, faster and hungrier than the Catalans.
The immediate consequence of the defeat will be to bring the curtain down on the brief spell at the Camp Nou of coach Quique Setien, who was brought in to replace Ernesto Valverde with Barca top of the league in January, only to see his side finish five points behind Real Madrid and now to crash disastrously out of Europe.
“We are going to take decisions,” said Barca president, Josep Maria Bartomeu shortly after the final whistle, probably aware that his own future is now up in the air as well with elections for the presidency on the horizon.
Setien came in thanks to his commitment to a passing game that Valverde had been accused of abandoning but showed himself to be totally inflexible despite obvious limitations in the squad and perhaps Valverde’s move towards more direct football at times has been vindicated as key players showed they no longer have the physicality needed to keep up the high pressure that made Barca so feared in the past.
Time and again, the Germans showed how effective high pressure and swift passing can be, but Barca lacked the legs to play their way out of trouble, while Leo Messi and Luis Suarez both aged 33 were simply unable to apply the pressure at the other end.
Xavi Hernandez (who turned the job down before Setien was appointed in January) and Mauricio Pochettino have both been mooted as possible replacements, but the fact is whoever takes over faces a difficult task, for the problems at the Camp Nou are not going to be solved in a day – or even in a season.
As well as Messi and Suarez, there are plenty of other key players at the club, who are the wrong side of 30.
Pique, who is still Barca’s best central defender by a long way, is also 33, while Sergio Busquets, who has been the first choice since 2008, is 32 and showing signs of decline. Arturo Vidal is 33, while Ivan Rakitic is 32 and left-back Jordi Alba is 31.
Basically the entire backbone of the Barca side is over 30 and has been allowed to grow old with the club’s sporting direction doing very little to stop the squad aging together.
While it’s true that Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong were added last summer, so far only De Jong has shown that he is going to adapt to be a Barca player, while the arrivals from two years earlier. Ousmane Dembele and Coutinho, have so far been expensive failures – with Coutinho ironically loaned to Bayern and painfully netting the last two goals on Friday.
A further problem is what Suarez, Busquets, Pique and company leave the Camp Nou they will all be expensive to replace, yet very few of them are going to be able to command a transfer fee and Barca’s finances are not in the healthiest of situations at the moment.
There is no way the club will be able to find substitutes for so many key players in one season, it will need two years and even then the club will have to get everything right – which must be a worry given how many signings they have got wrong in recent years.
Youngsters Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati offer some hope for the future, but it is unfair to place so much responsibility on a midfielder who has just turned 21 and an 18-year-old forward.
And last but not least: Leo Messi has been the Barca talisman for 15 years now and even now he is the player who leads from the front – how do you replace the best player in the world?
Bartomeu and his directors have rested too long on their laurels and on Messi’s genius, but now they and the Barca faithful could be due for some lean times, no matter who is in the dugout. Enditem