Worse Than Last Time? Barcelona's Champions League Misery Might Not Be Over Yet

Barca have failed to reach the last 16 for the first time in 18 years
13:58, 09 Dec 2021

A long cross-field pass caused confusion between Giovanni van Bronckhorst and the retreating Phillip Cocu, allowing Mario Breska the chance to run in behind. The winger sent a perfect low pass in for Milan Jambor to slide the ball home, sending the home crowd into ecstasy.

It was Jambor’s moment in the sun. His late equaliser against Barcelona had earned Slovakian minnows Matador Puchov a monumental 1-1 draw against one of the biggest clubs in the world game. This was the first round of the Uefa Cup in 2003-04.

Three weeks later, Barca hammered Puchov in the second leg, with Ronaldinho scoring a hat-trick in an 8-0 win at a sparsely-populated Camp Nou. Frank Rijkaard’s side would then go on to home-and-away doubles over Panionios and Brondby before Alan Thompson’s first-leg goal was enough to see Celtic knock them out in the round of 16.

That’s what Barcelona football was like the last time they were not part of the Champions League conversation come Christmas. Their 17-year run of successive appearances in the knockouts was ended on Wednesday night when a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich condemned them to the Europa League round of 32.

The intervening time has seen Barcelona transformed. Their solitary European Cup victory in 1992 has since been followed by Champions League wins in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015. Players of the calibre of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and a little guy called Lionel Messi helped them to turn in one of the most memorable periods of sustained excellence football has ever known.

Xavi, who played at the Stadion Antona Malatinskeho in Trnava on the night they were infamously denied by Jambor’s late leveller, was still there when they reached the very height of their successes. He is now that man who is being asked to guide them back from this new nadir as manager, all with a squad bereft of confidence and character, lacking self-belief and savvy.

No longer is there a daunted look on the faces of opponents arriving at Camp Nou, and the departure of Messi for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer was the clearest sign yet that the club’s money troubles could be set to harm them for some time to come.

In many ways, they have come full circle from that night in Trnava. They were just another fallen giant playing in the Uefa Cup that season. Inter, Celtic, Liverpool, Hamburg and Feyenoord were other former European champions to be taking part in the 2003-04 competition. Now, they’re the once-great, fallible Barcelona again rather than that almost-unstoppable, always-feared outfit of the last decade.

Xavi has one hell of a job on his hands. Players such as Ansu Fati and Pedri could go on to be the future of the club, but Barca cannot find themselves in a position where a pair of 19-year-olds are carrying them. Memphis Depay’s arrival has been a big positive, but quality has been in short supply elsewhere.

Maybe things are even bleaker for the club now than they were when Jambor slotted home that goal. At least then they felt like they were on the cusp of something. They had quality of the likes of Ronaldinho, Cocu, Xavi, Patrick Kluivert and Carles Puyol. They had Messi on the way, and arrivals such as Henrik Larrson, Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly the following summer would help to inject further quality into Rijkaard’s squad. By 2006 they were European champions for the second time and their era of dominance was about to begin.

In contrast, Barca look ready for anything but another rise to European superstardom. They are a complete mess, both on and off the field, sitting seventh in La Liga - six points adrift of the top four - and looking in no fit shape to challenge. And they may have to fall further yet before they truly bottom out and start to turn the ship around.

That draw with Matador Puchov felt like a real one-off back in 2003, a night like no other for a minnow club to remember forever. But there may be more humiliating setbacks for Barcelona on the horizon.


*18+ | BeGambleAware

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