To be fully honest, the only surprise of the “do or die” Champions League match against Inter Milan was that Barça managed a draw.
This is a team that has been in a downward spiral since the international break. It’s easy to say, and probably accurate, that with Kounde and Araujo, both victims of the famed FIFA Virus, Barça would have drawn in Italy and won at Camp Nou. Add that to the massive pile of “ifs” that have stalked this team since Jose Mourinho danced his happy dance amid the Camp Nou sprinklers.
Barça wasn’t good enough, or strong enough, physically or much more crucially mentally, to see off Inter in either of the two legs. Is Barça a more talented side? Without a doubt. But they don’t know how to win matches, nor do they have a manager — who is still learning on the job — who can set them up to win matches.
One knock against Xavi coming in was that he was too dogmatic, not sufficiently flexible or innovative to manage a top European side yet. Laporta jettisoned Koeman and brought in the legend, taking the shot that with a few of the right transfers his learning curve wouldn’t be as steep as it in fact is.
Inter showed that curve to be downright Sisyphean.
The reason this result wasn’t a surprise is that Inter won at home, and came out with pretty much the same tactics. Barça lost in Italy and came out with pretty much the same tactics and almost the same XI, minus Christensen, who is nursing an ankle knock. So Pique stood in, another consequence of a mentally soft club.
Barça has players who have been hanging on past their time, players who sentiment says they still have something to give, even as reality argues. The odd moment notwithstanding, the match came down to past it players making key errors at key moments, and a player in over his head falling victim. Pique’s distasterclass of a defensive display gifted Inter a goal so easy they almost couldn’t believe it.
Then it was Busquets’ turn, with a turnover he has done before, time and again, but this wasn’t some Liga side that somebody could steam in and save the day from. Lauraro Martinez reminded us all that Eric Garcia is a centerback in name and position alone, and put a knife in. The late goal that victimized an out of sorts, out of position “defense” was just icing on the cake, a pass over distance picked out by a Masia graduate who knew exactly what to do.
Barça is a failure at so many levels, but mostly at the idea of forging a team that has the capability to succeed. The club wanted De Jong out for a player its manager deemed more useful. “No, I want to stay and fight for a place.” He did. And that place is on the bench. Jordi Alba wanted to stay. So he did. Pique wanted to stay. So he did. Busquets is a hanger-on, a consequence of a system that no manager has been sufficiently talented to adapt him out of. Does anyone think that if, say, Guardiola or Klopp were managing Barça that Busquets would still be oozing around midfield? Yes, he’s lovely on the ball. So is Eric Garcia. And both were victimized on the same goal because it’s the other stuff that is lacking.
People cheered when Umtiti and Pjanic were sent packing. “Dead weight gone.” Cool. But they were never going to harm the club, except on the payroll. The ancients who have failed and failed again, failed so much that it’s reflex, were still there, still club icons, relics of a bygone time that respect demands a manager at least give them a shot. They can do the harm.
Football is a cruel, soulless game until it isn’t, until a club doesn’t really have the heart to dispense with players who are living, breathing symbols of a better time, but who now, just aren’t good enough. And the roster is studded with them. Or adequate freebies, on the team because the price was right. Garcia is improving, but again when he was really tested, he failed. And that is why he was available for free from Manchester City. Ferran Torres cost 55 million Euros, also from Manchester City. He isn’t good enough. And if either of those players were good enough, they would still be at City, because Guardiola and his brain trust aren’t fools. They dumped dead weight on a club willing to take them, and probably watch Garcia and Torres, look at each other, nod and smile.
Sergi Roberto shouldn’t be on the squad, much less starting at right back in a crucial Champions League match. People talked about the depth that Barça had after a busy summer of pulling lever after lever, but that depth is more like a hollow chocolate egg. Crack the surface and there’s nothing inside.
“What is the club supposed to do when three of its centerbacks get injured at the same time?” Well, not have mediocrities stalking around, waiting to victimize the team, for one. And have a manager willing to take a risk. Bring up a CB from the B team. Could any of them have been worse than Pique? Do something. Adapt tactics. Instead he rolled out with a back line of Sergi Roberto, Pique, Garcia and another pustulent freebie in Marcos Alonso. The first time Inter really tried to score, they almost did. The second time, they did. Ter Stegen can only do so much when his defense fails him, time and again.
Offensively, Barça was energetic and chaotic, rather than good or structured. For all of the talk about Xaviball, we still have no idea what it is. So much of it is still contingent upon the mood of a willowy Frenchman. “Give it to the wingers and let’s go.” That’s lovely when it works, and Raphinha brought in heart what he lacks in ultimate quality, working a ball loose and being persistent, to feed Sergi Roberto who slid it to a rampaging Dembele. Goal.
But even in the wake of that excitement, everything felt fragile because Barça is a fragile team, waiting to collapse at the first hint of adversity, which didn’t take long to arrive. Everybody pushed up except for Pique, standing there for some unfathomable reason, another brain-dead episode from a has-been, who then had the temerity to throw up an arm, begging for an offside call that would have come had his brain been on, had he been playing like the captain his armband denoted, an armband more like a Halloween costume on a night of horrors at the Camp Nou.
Xavi stuck with Alonso until finally he brought in Balde, who almost immediately after coming on, contributed an assist. Imagine that, the best fullback on the team doing something. Alonso, a veteran, big match you want your veterans, blablabla. Xavi will learn to play his best players in big matches, will learn that failed tactics in one arena aren’t suddenly going to be winning tactics just because you’re at home.
FC Barcelona is almost certainly out of Champions League, barring a miraculous sequence of events that would include them beating Bayern Munich and Victoria Plzen, then having Inter somehow not get three points out of two matches in the group. In Europa League, the level for the team right now as a group still learning what it takes to play in Europe, they aren’t a shoo-in for that trophy, either. And that’s because the team, the club lacks the necessary will, the ability to do what is necessary to succeed. Sentiment is lovely. Sentiment bathes us in the warm glow of times gone by, makes us think past it players can have a moment that makes us think they “still got it.” Sentiment keeps those folks around.
This was a club that was able to muster up the backbone to jettison Lionel Messi, who is now enjoying his twilight time in Paris. But when it came down to it, the club didn’t have the backbone to do what is really necessary, and two failures in Champions League, stacked upon a Jenga tower of Champions League failures, is the consequence.