Barcelona’s 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night was the latest in a string of underwhelming results for Ernesto Valverde, who is struggling to find solutions to his team’s problems.
Ronald Koeman has been trying to change the mindset of his players in order to stop Barcelona.
You’ll be able to fight another day. That was probably on Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman’s mind at the hour mark on Tuesday, when, down 2-0 at home and on the verge of losing to Bayern Munich, he hooked stalwarts Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto and performed the football equivalent of a bedraggled basketball coach emptying his bench.
Gavi and Yusuf Demir came in, two 35-year-olds who had combined for 47 first-team minutes and would probably go unnoticed by most Barca supporters if they walked up at the front door to deliver a pizza.
In less than 15 minutes, Koeman went even farther by replacing Jordi Alba with Alejandro Balde, an 18-year-old making his first appearance for the club.
It’s not unusual for coaches to bring in young players towards the conclusion of a rout (revel in the glory) or a rout loss (fans tend not to boo kids). However, the conditions were unusual in this case. Sure, Barca was outplayed — they hadn’t mustered a single shot on goal — but the deficit was just two goals, one of which was a craven deflection when Thomas Muller’s effort caromed off Eric Garcia’s rear.
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A comeback seemed improbable, but not impossible, and there was also the weight of history to consider. Barcelona have never lost a home opening in the Champions League. And no team has ever won the tournament in the same season after losing on Matchday 1 of the group stage. But that doesn’t matter; Koeman clearly isn’t a believer in superstitions.
Or, if he is, he understands the power of story. It’s no surprise that the three players that were taken off are all Catalans and club icons who spent time in Barcelona’s illustrious academy, with a combined total of 1300 senior appearances. And the three men who succeeded them are all third-millennium youngsters charged with preserving the club’s illustrious heritage.
Corny? Quite a bunch. But it’s not entirely false. Barcelona’s strength in the past has been bringing players through La Masia, and it will need to be so again. On this night, it didn’t matter; the substitutes had little effect, and Robert Lewandowski scored his second goal to clinch Bayern’s resounding victory.
As the Champions League group round got underway, Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona were no match for Bayern Munich. Getty
Sure, if you were a cynic, you might simply assume that Koeman was trying to tell you something “What am I meant to do now? I have nothing on the bench since a number of guys are unavailable?”
And he would have been correct. On his bench, he had a player returning from injury (Sergino Dest), a player who hadn’t played since last season (Riqui Puig), a player who hadn’t played since 2020 (Philippe Coutinho), and a player who Barcelona wanted to sell in the summer but couldn’t due to his high salary (Samuel Umtiti).
This is the reality in Barcelona. Sure, things might change if Ansu Fati gets back to full health and lives up to the hype (but remember, he hasn’t played in 10 months and is still just 18; putting unreasonable expectations on a child his age is both unfair and stupid), and if Ousmane Dembele avoids injury (he has never started more than 22 league games in his career).
But if you believe the cavalry will emerge from the hospital and transform the Blaugrana into contenders, you’re clutching at straws.
What exactly are we discussing? Sergio Aguero, who is 33 and was recruited to be Lionel Messi’s sidekick when it seemed like Barcelona may be able to afford to retain their famous striker, hasn’t played since June, has missed the most of the past two seasons, and has struggled when he has played during that time? Martin Braithwaite, perhaps? Blue-collar hero with a great attitude, but if he’s the solution, you’re asking the wrong questions.
This is something Koeman is aware of. He understands the agony of the previous six weeks, the sad goodbye to Messi, the near-bankruptcy, and the knowledge that the club is now the third, if not fourth, force in LaLiga. It was no fight on a night like today, against a Bayern team that, while not being unstoppable, was miles ahead.
It’s best to identify it, plan ahead of the other two clubs in the group, Benfica and Dynamo Kiev, and aim for a top-four finish in LaLiga. This would ensure a return to the Champions League the next season, as well as keeping part of the prize money in the Camp Nou coffers.
Barca supporters see the gravity of the issue and recognize that it is the only option to halt the rot. Indeed, they may prefer to see youngsters like Gavi, Demir, and Balde attempt to make the grade rather than see the heroes of old get a house spanking.
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