Gerard Pique reacts during Barcelona’s 3-0 loss away at Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Xavi Hernandez said the Europa League is not where Barcelona belong, but another chastening defeat by Bayern Munich on Wednesday showed again how far they are from the Champions League elite.
After six games played in Group E, Barca had scored two goals in a pair of 1-0 victories over Dynamo Kiev. Against Bayern and Benfica, the two accomplished sides in the group, they failed to score a single goal and conceded nine, from a stalemate at home to Benfica, and three 3-0 defeats.
When Xavi took over on the back of consecutive wins over Dynamo, there appeared to be a way back, a possible path to qualification. But that always assumed Xavi’s arrival would initiate a bounce in form that, in truth, is yet to materialise.
Barca suffered Xavi’s first defeat in La Liga on Saturday at home to Real Betis, a fellow contender for the top four, and now their status as a Champions League club has also gone up in smoke.
“I wanted us to compete in this Champions League and try to win it but the reality is we are not at that level. It’s hard, but that’s how it is,” Xavi said on Wednesday night.
The immediate impact will be primarily financial, with Barcelona missing out on around 15 million euros they would have earned for reaching the Champions League last 16 and that the club had forecasted into their accounts.
To make the same money in the Europa League, they would have to win the tournament.
For any club, in the aftermath of the pandemic, unexpected losses like these are damaging but for Barcelona, still nursing more than a billion euros of debt and trying to launch a 1.5-billion-euro renovation of stadium and training facilities, it is a hammer blow.
There will be the impact on potential signings, those Barca are now even less able to afford than before and those who might see them now, even more so than before, as a club in freefall.
Any targets in the January transfer window might justifiably wonder if exile from the Champions League is a blip, or a sign of things to come. Will Ferran Torres leave Manchester City for this?
Even the struggling Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain might look back at his former club with some sense of relief to be away from it all. It cannot be entirely coincidental the last time Barcelona played in the Europa League was 2003-04, the season before Messi made his Barca debut.
There will almost certainly be a hit to the morale and belief of the players, for whom Barcelona’s status and grandure has been one of the last remaining sources of reassurance.
Trailing Real Madrid by 16 points already in La Liga may have seen any hope of winning the title extinguished but most still believed Barcelona were too big not to beat the likes of Real Sociedad and Real Betis to the top four.
That confidence feels less secure with the team about to be thrown into the draw for the Europa League’s round of 32 on Monday.
There is an irony as well in Barcelona’s steadfast commitment to the European Super League, a project that would supercede the Champions League, the tournament that Barcelona are no longer good enough to play in.
For now, Xavi remains relatively untarnished by all this, even though he has missed out on what would have been a welcome boost to his authority and kudos if he had overseen Barcelona getting through.
He also avoids the very real possibility of another humiliation in the knock-out stages that might have been even more damaging.
But in a practical sense, Xavi’s job in the second half of this season has just got harder.
He has to weigh up how many of his chips to throw at winning the Europa League without harming his team’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League through La Liga.
Most will expect Barcelona to progress in the Europa league even while rotating but there are countless examples of elite European clubs being burned by highly-motivated, often underrated Europa League opponents.
Besides, in the later rounds, few would express much confidence this Barca would beat the likes of Porto, Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund, not to mention Betis, Sevilla or Real Sociedad, even with their strongest line-up.
To win the trophy and secure Champions League qualification in one fell swoop is now the dream scenario but, just as it will be for Barcelona’s recovery, the road will be long, hard and without guarantees.