Could this be the end of the great Barcelona team of Messi, Xavi andIniesta?
Madrid’s press certainly think it could be. “Fin de ciclo” screamed the headline on the front page of AS, one of Madrid’s two daily sports newspapers, on Wednesday morning after Barca’s 4-0 caning at the hands of Bayern Munich.
The two sides meet again tonight in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final. Surely the gods won’t grant another reprieve to Barça, of the kind it enjoyed against Milan in March in the tournament’s Round of 16, when Messi and company fired four goals past the Italians at the Camp Nou to progress 4-2 on aggregate.
This time the difference is four goals, not two, going into the game. If Bayern score, and it’s been more than a year since it failed to score on the road, Barça will need to get six.
Bayern, of course, has been in imperious form this season. It is a team on the cusp of greatness. What, one wonders, could it be like once Toni Kroos and Holger Badstuber are back from injury, and when Dortmund’s Mario Götze and, possibly, Robert Lewandowski are added to its roster? Earlier this month the club wrapped up its domestic league title with six weeks to run in the Bundesliga, which is a record, and it’s driven by a visceral need to erase the defeat in its own house to Chelsea, a team it dominated, in last year’s final. Will they be cagey against Barca, and try to preserve its lead? More likely they will smell blood.
There have been signs of decay at Barca for a while now. Part of it is inevitable, the result of an understandable lack of hunger, of burnout, after amassing 14 trophies in four seasons, notwithstanding international adventures.
Seven of the starting XI in Spain’s World Cup-winning team in 2010 was drawn from Barca’s ranks, six when they retained the European Championships crown last summer.
The club has been bedeviled by bad luck over the last year. There have been injuries, notably a succession to club captain Carles Puyol.
Cancer returned to Eric Abidal, keeping him out of action for 12 months at a time Barca has been leaking goals. Fifteen times this season, Barca have come from behind to win games.
Cancer also hit manager Tito Vilanova again. Questions have been raised about Vilanova’s future at the club. He says he will stay on, addressing the naysayers in his first press conference in three months last Friday. His inertia during the rout by Bayern last week was troubling. His only intervention was to put on David Villa with 83 minutes on the clock. Perhaps he was overcome by shock. It is no mitigation. As Gary Lineker put it wryly: “Only one of these sides needs Pep Guardiola … and it’s not Bayern.”
The pressure for managers at Barcelona ain’t normal. Johan Cruyff, the club’s longest-serving coach since the Second World War, suffered a heart attack and never managed a club again after his stint in charge. Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola’s predecessor, moved out of his family home into a hotel close to the Camp Nou during his last chaotic season.
The club’s internal politics over the last 30 years have been Shakespearean, full of vicious personality clashes amongst its presidents and directors. Despite the club’s huge wealth, it’s never far from implosion. Even though Barca won nine league titles in the last 20 seasons, they went three trophyless seasons after the fallout and bickering that resulted from Luis Figo’s move to Real Madrid in 2000.
Vilanova needs to re-charge a team that is overly dependent on Messi. The graph of his contribution to Barça’s goals over the last five years is striking: 2008-09 (32%); 2009-10 (43%); 2010-11 (46%); 2011-12 (56%); and 2012-13 (60%). On Saturday, Barça trailed Athletic Bilbao 1-0 when he was sprung from the bench after an hour. Within minutes, he weaved his through three players on the edge of the box, reminiscent of Georgie Best’s memorable goal for the San Jose Earthquakes in 1981, except in a tighter space, before passing the ball into the net.
With him in its side, optimism will never be far away for Barca fans. He’s only 25 years of age, the same age as Cesc Fabregas. Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are 24, Pedro and Piqué, 26; and Iniesta is 28. Add to their number players such as Neymar, who Sport newspaper claims Barça has paid a €10 million deposit, and Thiago Silva or Mats Hummels, names touted over the weekend in the press, and rejuvenation is at hand, just not in time for tonight’s clash against Bayern Munich.
nRichard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry. It is published by Bloomsbury.
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