SECOND-CLASS BLAUGRANA

Barcelona have had a weird old time so far under Xavi. A narrow 1-0 win over derby rivals Espanyol on his debut was followed by a fighting goalless draw against Benfica. That tie was a bigger deal than the league victory as defeat to Bayern Munich on the final matchday has ensured that the Blaugrana are out of the Champions League.

 

With Benfica winning comfortably against whipping boys Dynamo Kyiv and the Bavarians being perfect, the prospect of the Catalans having to settle for Europa League football come next year has now come true.

 

FIRST IN 17 YEARS

Barcelona have not played in the second-tier of European competitions since the 2003-04 season, when it was called the UEFA Cup. Back then, it was the result of an extremely turbulent campaign, both on and off the pitch. 2002-03 was the last year of then-president Joan Gaspart’s tenure, as he was first replaced by Enric Reyna and later Joan Laporta. Gaspart had overseen a period of increasing debt and spending, which were in urgent need of addressing. 

Louis van Gaal
Image credits: fcbarcelona.com

 

The situation was no better in the managerial dugout, as Louis van Gaal was fired in January after suffering five losses in eight fixtures since December. Antonio de la Cruz took over for less than a week, overseeing one more defeat. Finally, Radomic Antic was brought in till the end of the season but the writing was on the wall. Three losses in their final 18 games was not enough to overturn the misfortunes suffered early on, as Barcelona finished a lowly 6th in the table. 

Juan Riquelme
Juan Riquelme. Image credits: futbolretro.es

 

The two major signings, Gaizka Mendieta and Juan Riquelme, failed to live up to expectations. 91 appearances between the pair of them across all competitions only produced 12 goals. Needless to say, there were major changes across the club before the start of the next season in order to solidify the team.

 

ROARING BACK

Laporta, who succeeded Gaspart, appointed Frank Rijkaard as the new manager. Furthermore, reinforcements were brought in across all positions including Ronaldinho, Ricardo Quaresma and Rafael Marquez. Alongside the established pros, Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes were promoted from La Masia, the pair going onto become pillars of the team. 

 

The results saw an immediate upturn with the Blaugrana finishing second in the league, behind Valencia. They would have won the title if not for two costly defeats in their final three games. Ronaldinho would be named FIFA World Player of the Year but their European sojourn would end in a surprising manner.

Barcelona dispatched Slovakian side Matador Puchov in the first round by an aggregate of 9-1. Eight of those goals came in the second-leg at Camp Nou with Ronaldinho netting a hat-trick. Panionios from Greece were similarly brushed aside 5-0 before a sterner test against Brondby. The Catalans won 3-1 across two legs, thereby entering the round-of-16 match-up against Celtic.

 

SHOCK EXIT

The Scottish giants, on paper, were deemed to be no match for Barcelona given the vast disparity in the quality of players across the two sides. However, the Bhoys threw a major spanner in the Spanish works in the first-leg. At Celtic Park, the home side ran out 1-0 winners thanks to Alan Thompson’s famous strike.

Alan Thompson
Alan Thompson hits the game-winning strike. Image credits: thecelticstar.coml

 

Still, everyone expected the Blaugrana to overturn the slight deficit at Camp Nou. What followed next has gone down in the annals of European history, with a solid defensive effort keeping out the superlative firepower over the 90 minutes. Barcelona crashed out, losing 1-0 on aggregate as Celtic celebrated their most famous win of recent times until 2012. 

 

DEJA VU?

The situation this time is not too dissimilar, given Bayern smacked them across the two outings. Even a draw combined with a win for Benfica would not have been enough, as Benfica would have gone through courtesy of a superior head-to-head record. Xavi knows he has a tall task ahead of him, and even though there is a whole lot of optimism surrounding Barcelona right now, missing out on qualification to the knockouts will be a deflating blow nonetheless. 

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