It was meant to be different in Europe this year, but Barcelona will have to go about things the hard way, with coach Xavi Hernandez witnessing his reputation begin to erode.
After winning La Liga the previous season and their first three Champions League games, Xavi maintained that the Catalans are headed in the right direction. However, on a chilly Tuesday night in Hamburg, a shocking 1-0 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk put an end to their hopes.
Barca was expected to secure a spot in the Champions League knockout stages, but they utterly failed to pose any serious threat to the Ukrainian champions throughout the match.
“All the European ghosts of previous years came down on Barcelona,” wrote Spanish newspaper Marca.
“The eliminations from past years against Bayern, Benfica, and Inter. And yesterday’s opponent had a much lower level than all of these.”
While Barcelona still lead Group H on nine points, level with their next opponents Porto, and are expected to qualify, pressure has started to build on Xavi.
Barcelona have not won the Champions League since 2015 and after gambling a chunk of the club’s future income to make a slew of signings in 2022, are desperate to reestablish themselves among Europe’s elite.
Many Spanish outlets considered the Shakhtar loss, against a team from war-torn Ukraine, who have to play their matches at a neutral stadium, a humiliation.
“Barca, beaten by Shakhtar, are the ‘jester’ of Europe,” ran a headline in newspaper El Pais.
It follows two more letdowns in quick succession.
Barca’s morale was severely damaged when they lost the Clasico in stoppage time against rivals Real Madrid on October 28. Although they defeated Real Sociedad 1-0 on Saturday, it was a fortunate victory following a subpar showing.
More of the same was their offer against Shakhtar, with Xavi speculating that it might be a “mental” problem as opposed to a physical one or a football-related issue for the club.
“Xavi’s big problem is that he does not have a clear diagnosis of what is happening to the team,” argued radio journalist Manolo Lama, on station Cadena Cope.
Further to that, the coach does not seem to know what his best starting line-up is, or even which system to use.
Against Real Madrid he switched to a formation with three centre-backs, sticking to it against Real Sociedad, where it was dismantled with ease.
In the Shakhtar defeat he reverted to Barcelona’s classic 4-3-3 with two wide forwards, but Shakhtar negated it by asking their wingers to track back diligently.
Spearhead Robert Lewandowski is blunter than he has been in a decade, with no goals in his last six games for the club, while the 35-year-old’s unwillingness or inability to press is setting Barca back.