The Europa League awaits for Barcelona and there is no real sense of it offering much respite. They were awful against Bayern Munich yet again.
It is a rare thrill to see a continental goliath trip and land face first in more shallow waters. Real Madrid were knocked out by Odense BK in their last UEFA Cup jaunt in 1995. Paris Saint-Germain were most recently in Europe’s secondary competition less than a decade ago, exiting at the group stage. Juventus have had their semi-regular spells of incompetence underlined by UEFA Cup and Europa League participation. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United have all endured the switch from scintillating Tuesday and Wednesday nights to soul-destroying Thursday evenings this millennium. Tottenham might need a play-off just to continue in the Europa Conference League, little over two years after reaching the Champions League final.
Bayern Munich themselves were last consigned to UEFA Cup action in 2008. Their failure to beat Bolton at home that year in front of 66,000 hopeful supporters who were yet to properly adjust expectations was a chastening experience. It feels like it happened in a completely different era. In many ways, it did: when Super Leagues were clandestine pipedreams rather than likelihoods that are one more cogent step away from becoming reality; when super transfers amounted to £30m or so; when super clubs didn’t really exist, or at least super club-specific DNA or identity was not yet fetishised and commercialised beyond all meaning.
Barcelona have come to define the fragile masculinity of the ‘Super’ era. One of the few clubs still hanging to the original botched idea of a breakaway competition, their recent signings have been almost universally awful and the appointment of playing legend Xavi as manager is fuelled far more by blind hope and arrogance than anything else.
Perhaps he and they can ask Bayern for tips on how to recover after their latest Allianz Arena humbling. If a team forfeits a match, they are deemed to have lost 3-0. The scoreline at the end of proceedings on Wednesday night was symbolic. Barcelona surrendered. They have been beaten from pillar to post by this opponent with uncomfortable frequency of late, but this was something else. There was no schadenfreude, no perverse pleasure to derive, no real sense of mischievous joy. Just complete indifference. Maybe a fleeting moment of contentment at mediocrity and egotism being punished, but little else.
It was quite easy to drive straight past this car crash without even offering a passing glance.
AC Milan came to realise 24 hours earlier that the real contenders see no dead rubbers at this level, that the actual elite – not just those who claim the status based on history and prestige – can swap the members of a fluid cast at no compromise to performances and results. Liverpool made eight changes to their line-up and still beat the seven-time European champions with nothing but pride at stake. Bayern ended this procession with Omar Richards, Bouna Sarr, Tanguy Nianzou and Malik Tillman on the pitch, with fellow substitute Marc Roca rubbing some Espanyol salt in those fresh Catalan wounds.
It was never really close. Ousmane Dembele had his typical bright moments in the first half but by stoppage-time the sight of him picking up the ball on the halfway line, turning to face two defenders and realising he had to go it alone, only to be dispossessed cleanly by Leroy Sane, was stark.
One fine cross almost found Frenkie De Jong. The pair, signed for a combined £200.5m, were brought to the Nou Camp with the express intention of being able to define and decide games such as these; both were taken off in a double substitution in the 73rd minute, with Bayern three goals up.
Bayern, meanwhile, were breaking with alarming regularity. Alphonso Davies was able to consistently stretch his legs down the left channel and Benjamin Pavard defended with consummate assurance. It took half an hour for their dominance to be rewarded but there was no panic at any point before then. They knew a breakthrough was inevitable.
Thomas Muller opened the scoring with an intelligent header and Leroy Sane struck a long ranger that blistered through Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s palms soon after. With Benfica 2-0 up themselves at home to Dynamo Kyiv, one of the darkest chapters in Barcelona’s modern history had already been co-authored by Group E’s winners and runners-up.
The third goal, a run to the byline from Davies, whose cutback was finished well by Jamal Musiala, was the final dagger. Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi had won trophies and built legacies on that move; the former went off injured with a pulled hamstring in the first half and the latter scored as many Champions League goals for Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday as Barcelona have all season.
Perhaps the Europa League will offer respite, consolation and a chance at some sort of redemption. Then again, they might be moved for Eastenders or, as Bayern can attest, subdued by an English underdog they would ordinarily turn their noses up at. The thing is, Barcelona would not even be favourites in a tie against West Ham, nor are they actually good enough to be drawn against them in the next round. How the mighty have fallen. And how they might well keep going.
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