Barcelona have crashed out of the UEFA Champions League in the group stages for the first time in 17 years with a disastrous run of results under Ronald Koeman. The appointment of Xavi as manager did little to stop their exit as a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the last group stage fixture saw them finish third in the group behind Bayern and Benfica.
With the Catalan giants now eighth in the La Liga, well out of title contention, Xavi’s focus will be on the Europa League to salvage the club’s season with a European title.
We take a look at Barcelona’s route to the UEFA Europa League finals, and their chances in the tournament.
FALL OF LA LIGA CLUBS
Apart from Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid who are cruising at the top of the table, the performance of the Spanish clubs at the European stage has been dismal this season.
Both defending La Liga champions Atletico Madrid and defending Europa League champions Villarreal have struggled to get past the group stages of the Champions League, needing a win in the last fixture to confirm their knockout round berths.
Sevilla and Barcelona could only finish third to settle for a Europa League berth where they once again find their chances under a cloud.
The fall of La Liga clubs from their glory days has been swift, partly owing to the financial troubles at home. But one of the major reasons for the decline in their quality has been the exodus of major players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suarez.
The rise of Premier League clubs and the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich is partly thanks to the prying away of talent from La Liga.
The five-time European champions entered the season with little confidence, but no one would have predicted the swiftness of their downfall.
The club had to do away with the services of Ronald Koeman after a string of results that saw them fall to ninth in the La Liga table with seemingly no hopes of a turnaround.
A 3-0 shock defeat to Benfica have left them in a precarious position in the Champions League, with two 1-0 victories against minnows Dynamo Kyiv not proving much useful in the end.
The appointment of Xavi as manager has initially improved the team’s prospects as the team won back-to-back games against Espanyol and Villarreal. But a goalless draw against Benfica followed by a 3-0 loss to Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich have forced the club out of the Champions League.
EUROPA LEAGUE DRAW
If Barcelona want to end the season on a high note, nothing short of a Europa League crown will satisfy the expectations of fans back at Camp Nou. The Blaugrana’s chances in Europe’s second-most prestigious competition look solid, but they have to overcome the likes of Napoli and Borussia Dortmund to lift the coveted trophy.
The draw for Europa League knockout rounds was released on Monday with the third-placed Champions League clubs taking on group runner-ups of the Europa League.
Barcelona will be facing Luciano Spalleti’s Napoli in the knockout rounds to be held in February. Camp Nou will host the runner-ups of Group C on 17th February while Barca will travel to Naples on 24th February.
Napoli are having a decent season in Serie A with 11 wins from 17 fixtures placing them fourth in the table – just four points behind leaders Inter. Napoli also managed to come out ahead of Leicester City in a tightly-contested Group C in the Europa League.
But their recent form has been troubling, with losses to Spartak Moscow, Atalanta, and Empoli hurting their confidence.
Barcelona have not had to deal with second-tier European clubs for almost two decades with the five-time champions enjoying their dominance of the game in the Champions League. But now they have to contend with opponents they are less familiar with.
Xavi’s arrival has brought back confidence to the team, but whether the confidence translates to results on the field remains to be seen. If they manage to defeat Napoli, they will still have to face the likes of Borussia Dortmund ahead – which is by no means an easy path to the title.
Xavi has spoken of the need to remove the defeatist mentality that has solidified among Barca’s players after their tepid performance in the draw against Osasuna and their loss to Boca Juniors.
The return of Dani Alves to the club will strengthen their leaky defences, but he is unavailable to play for the club till January.
The lengthy injury list compounds the club’s problems with Ansu Fati, Eric Garcia, Nico Gonzalez, Pedri, Gerard Pique, Sergino Dest, Ousmane Dembele, Sergi Roberto, and Martin Braithwaite all missing out on various matches due to injuries. For a team that is already depleted of talent, the additional work burden on youngsters is reportedly causing issues at Camp Nou.
Barcelona have never laid their hands on the Europa League trophy. Winning the tournament to mark the end of a troubled season will enable them to return to their glory days next year and return La Liga to its competitive nature.
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