Different players, same results, but even more embarrassing.
For the second year in a row, Barcelona’s Champions League campaign ended in the group stage on Wednesday, and this year’s flop is much harder to deal with.
Fans could understand why Barcelona struggled in the months following the exit of Lionel Messi at the start of last season. Rudderless without the football great, the team failed to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time in nearly two decades.
The failure to win titles last campaign, combined with the massive debt the club had generated in the final years of Messi’s reign, drove Barcelona’s new board to taking the risky decision to sell off part of the club’s television rights and other assets in order to refloat the team.
The mortgaging of Barcelona’s future in exchange for 866 million euros ($870 million) in hand allowed club president Joan Laporta to spend big on new talent, including star striker Robert Lewandowski, defender Jules Koundé and winger Raphinha.
It was basically the club doubling down to go all out this season at the risk of reduced future revenues.
The bet, Laporta argued, was necessary to get Barcelona back to winning titles now and to reclaim its spot among Europe’s football elite. That, in turn, would bring in more prize money, boost ticket and merchandising sales, and make sponsors want to spend even more to link their brands to a reborn winner.
So it should be hard for fans to accept that a revamped, new-look Barcelona is out of the most lucrative and prestigious competition in club football in the month of October. To add insult to injury, Barcelona was condemned to a third-place finish even before it was beaten 3-0 by group winner Bayern Munich after Inter Milan locked up second place by seeing off Viktoria Plzen earlier Wednesday.
“I understand that from outside the club this is considered a failure,” Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández said after the elimination. “But from within we think differently. Failure is for those who don’t even try."
But Xavi quickly admitted that his team had not met expectations.
“We have to face our reality,” the former Spain midfielder said. “We have not been up to the task due to our lack of effectiveness in the area and our mistakes. The way we exited the competition, with one group game to go, is also cruel. We leave with a bad sensation.”
Now the team must focus on winning the Spanish league title for the first time since 2019 if it wants to appease its fans, thousands of which are club members and its effective owners.
Barcelona visits Valencia on Saturday trailing leader and defending champion Real Madrid by three points. Madrid, meanwhile, hosts Girona on Sunday. Third-place Atlético Madrid will look to rebound from its Champions League exit on Saturday at Cádiz.
Barcelona started the season in promising fashion in the Spanish league, which it led after winning seven games and drawing once. But that ended when it lost 3-1 at Madrid two rounds ago.
Over the past six weeks, Barcelona has failed to get a single win against top opponents, losing twice to Bayern, once to Madrid and losing one and drawing one with Inter.
The pressure is building on Xavi to make good on the club’s investment in his squad. Xavi, a fan favorite for his leading role in the best Barcelona teams of all time when he played under Pep Guardiola, returned with no major club experience to take over the team as its coach last season when Ronald Koeman was fired.
Laporta has maintained his full support of Xavi.
“We still have the league and other competitions (Europa League and Copa del Rey) to play for, and we knew that there would be highs and lows during this rebuilding process,” Laporta said.
The exit from the Champions League is also another blow to the club’s immediate finances. Advancing to the knockout stage had been part of its budgetary expectations.
Barcelona will miss out on the 9.6 million euros ($9.7 million) in prize money that UEFA awards clubs who reach the Champions League's round of 16. Bigger money would have been ahead for winning subsequent rounds. Switching to the second-tier Europa League is rewarded with 500,000 euros ($504,000) with seven-figure payments for advancing further.
Last season, Xavi’s Barcelona lost in the quarterfinals of the Europa League to eventual champion Eintracht Frankfurt.
Laporta and his staff will also have their hands full over the coming months to prepare for more financial headwinds.
Barcelona was barely able to meet the Spanish league’s financial rules based on debts compared to revenues necessary to register new players for this season. And league president Javier Tebas has already warned Barcelona publicly that next summer may be equally tough for a club that still has a net debt of 608 million euros ($610 million) and likely a reduced appetite to sell off more assets.
The main task for Barcelona’s leadership appears to be slashing its salary load, which has actually increased this season after its new signings.
Barcelona’s leading financial officer, vice president Eduard Romeu, said recently that for the club to get its salaries to within sustainable limits it would need to jettison the contracts of veterans Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba. In the summer the club had also wanted to sell midfielder Frenkie de Jong.
So the next moves Barcelona makes will likely be to slim down its squad, especially if it continues to underperform.
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