Many culers are still wrestling with the notion that their beloved club is in the Europa League. It’s not Champions League, right? It’s like that second-tier tournament where big clubs go to feel shame, and keep from getting egg on their faces at the hands of clubs that nobody except supporters ever watch, right?
Not only is the Europa League a real, legitimate tournament that any club should be proud to win. Another useful way to look at it is that if your new manager is helping your club build a juggernaut starter kit, what better place to woodshed that outfit than the Europa League?
The dirty secret here is that Barça belongs in the Europa League. That’s the European level the team is at right now. As Darth Vader said, “Search your feelings. You know this to be true.” Year after year of Champions League humiliation led to year after year of wishful thinking from supporters, that “If only” nonsense that people spout as they whistle past the graveyard. But Benfica getting results against Barça not once, but twice should have been all the waking up culers needed.
Yes, that’s third-place in the Portuguese primera division, fired their manager Benfica.
In the first leg against Eintracht Frankfurt, Barça ran into a fist. It was also the first Europa match that simulated some of the energy and competitive fire of a Champions League tie. Barça was lucky to escape with a draw. Frankfurt exposed every deficiency the present team has, twisted them like a knife and only fell short at that crucial last bit of execution.
At 1-1 on aggregate, with away goals having died a sad death, this tie is balanced on a knife edge. Expect Frankfurt to attack the same way, because as Levante showed on the past Liga match weekend, the same deficiencies are present in this team. If they score first, it could be a long night in culerville.
Yet even if they do, even if Barça is bounced from a tournament that it would be a failure not to win, this Europa League competition will still have been immensely useful. Barça was basically a Europa League team playing in Champions League. Benfica made that as clear as Bayern did, and the most recent drubbing came at the hands of a down-cycle Bayern. Xavi is building something, and you often need successes to build something, and failure can even be useful.
Barça is still kids, geezers and solid professionals. It’s finally a fun team to watch, but even as we chafe at Benfica being where we presume Barça’s rightful place is (losing to Liverpool?), the team is in a good place to grow something. Should it progress past Frankfurt, the competition only gets more difficult, and Europa League is essentially a low-stakes space for Xavi to build in his team the mental fortitude necessary to be truly competitive in Europe.
It’s a quality that Real Madrid has, that notion that losing just isn’t something to consider. They’re 12 points ahead in league, came back against PSG, came back from three goals down to eliminate Chelsea. Mentality is a big part of the game at the highest level. Making the Europa League semis, maybe even the final, would be of more value to Barça than getting hammered by Liverpool. Barça just beat Real Madrid 4-0, and likely would have won even had Benzema been there, but don’t assume that means that team has the mentality to compete in full in Europe. It’s getting there, thanks to Xavi.
Meanwhile, Pique is out. For sure. But Dest and Depay is back, but expect only one of them to be useful in today’s match. Xavi won’t mess about with rotation today, needing to advance, so expect the likes of Pedri, Frenkie De Jong and Dembele to start, and expect Barça to advance. Which seems simple enough.
But expect drama. Score prediction? Those are hard, but I will go out on a limb and say 2-1, and the good guys advance.