At Barcelona, a feeling worse than sorrow - pity

They would have expected anger. As Barcelona’s players chased shadows Tuesday night while Bayern Munich toyed with them and teased them and tore through them, time and time again, they would almost have been waiting for the fury to come, for the Camp Nou to bare its teeth.

That is the way it has always been, after all. Barcelona has never been an easy crowd. The club has long worried that it is, in fact, a theater crowd: sitting there, quietly, demanding to be entertained, quick to make its displeasure known if not just the result, but also the performance, is not up to scratch.

There were plenty of points Tuesday night when the crowd might have turned. After the second goal, perhaps. After yet another uninterrupted Bayern attack. After it became clear there was no way back, not in 90 minutes and maybe not for some time. The players would certainly not have been surprised by it. They might even have been anticipating it.

And yet it did not come. Even as Bayern ran in a third, completing Barcelona’s humiliation, there was no shrill chorus of whistles, no torrent of jeers washing down the stands, no great guttural roar of frustration and disappointment. There were flashes — Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto were booed from the field — but they were occasional, fleeting.

Instead, the players were subjected to something far more damning, far more telling, infinitely worse: pity.

That, more than anything, was a measure of how far and how fast this club has fallen. On a Champions League night, as its team was dismantled by a putative peer and rival, the Camp Nou crowd — among the most demanding in sports, an audience spoiled by a decade of some of the finest football in history — was not spitting fury but offering gentle, sincere encouragement.

The fans sang the name of a teenager, midfielder Gavi, not because of anything he had done, but simply because of what he had not. They applauded when Barcelona threaded a handful of passes together. They urged the team forward. They recognised, in essence, that for the first time in ages, Barcelona needed their support.

There is no great profit in dwelling, yet again, on how it has come to this, or in chastising the club for its profligacy, its absurd recruitment, its financial recklessness, its pigheaded belief that the sun would always shine and the good days would last forever.

There is no point listing the succession of nadirs that have served as signposts: the defeats in Rome and Liverpool, England, and Lisbon, Portugal; and the loss of Neymar and then, this past summer, of Lionel Messi himself, both to Paris St.-Germain.

They have been illusions, after all. Nobody knows quite, not yet, where the bottom might be, how far Barcelona might still fall. In its own way, this defeat to Bayern was no less harrowing than the 8-2 loss in Lisbon a year and a lifetime ago — not as dramatic a collapse, of course, not as eye-catching or as immediately shocking, but just as comprehensive and just as instructive.

It was not just that Bayern was better in every single position — stronger, fitter and more technically adept. It was not just that Bayern was better coached, better organised and more precise.

It was that Bayern seemed to be playing modern, elite football, full of pressing triggers and rote movements, while Barcelona — for so long the team and the institution that defined cutting-edge — had the air of a team from the past, parachuted in from the 1950s and told that now the game is actually about inverted wingers occupying half-spaces. The 8-2 was, in a certain sense, a freak result. This was not. This was just an illustration of how much better Bayern is these days and of how far from the pinnacle Barcelona has drifted.

And perhaps, in that, there is a glimmer of hope. The era of the superclubs, and the shrieking hyperbole with which those teams are covered, has a distorting effect. Obviously, this Barcelona team is weaker than its predecessors, drastically so. Evidently, this Barcelona team is a long way short of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea and the two or three other teams that might harbour some sort of ambition of winning the Champions League.

But it is not, in terms of its raw materials, a bad team by global standards. Marc-André ter Stegen remains one of the finest goalkeepers in the world and Jordi Alba one of the game’s best left backs. Gerard Piqué is not, all of a sudden, a terrible defender. A midfield built around Pedri and Frenkie De Jong has a rich potential. Once Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé return, there is promise in attack, too.

A smart, innovative coach might not be able to turn that team into a Champions League winner, might not even be able to craft a side that could beat Bayern Munich. But there is certainly talent enough there not to be humiliated, not to look passe. Teams such as Red Bull Salzburg have only a fraction of Barcelona’s ability — yes, even this Barcelona, reduced as it is — and yet can emerge with credit from games with Europe’s grandest houses.

There is no reason to believe that Barcelona, with a more progressive coach than Ronald Koeman in charge, could not level the playing field at least a little. Without question, it should be possible to forge a team that does not look surprised at the fact that an opponent from the Bundesliga might press high up the field.

It is likely to be a forlorn hope. There has been little to no indication from Barcelona that this is a club likely to make an imaginative, forward-thinking coaching appointment. The likeliest replacement for Koeman is Xavi Hernández, a player raised in the school of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, an echo of the past rather than a glimpse toward the future. Nostalgia is Barcelona’s opium. It dulls the pain, but it deepens the problem.

There is no reason to believe it is even a team ready to build around its young talent. After all that cost-cutting this summer, Barcelona celebrated by signing journeyman Dutch striker Luuk De Jong on loan. It remains a place affixed to the short term. Both Pedri and Fati are out of contract at the end of this season; so parlous are the club’s finances that it may yet find that it cannot retain one or both of them.

Without that sort of intervention, then, this is all that is left: a hollow shell, a shadow team, a side that looks like a bootleg imitation of Barcelona rather than Barcelona itself. For more than a decade, those blue-and-red jerseys represented style and panache and adventure and excellence.

The sight of them, for all but the most hardened Real Madrid fans, brought a jolt of excitement, a sharp thrill of expectation to anyone who loved football. They were Messi and Ronaldinho and Rivaldo and Romário and Guardiola and Laudrup and Cruyff. They were Berlin in 2015 and Wembley in 2011 and Rome in 2009 and Paris in 2006. They were Real Betis fans standing to applaud in defeat and the Santiago Bernabéu rising to its feet in despair.

That is not what you think of when you see Barcelona now. You think, instead, of what it was and what it has become. You think of a club that has had its bones picked clean by its rivals, that has been left grasping at the shadows of its past. You think of how it used to be and how this is not the same. You see a team dressed as Barcelona but not a Barcelona team.

Not so long ago Barcelona inspired awe. Now that has been replaced — by sorrow at how far it has fallen, by regret that it has come to this; and most of all, most damning and most telling of all, infinitely worse, what Barcelona inspires above anything else is what the Camp Nou showed its team, its diminished heirs of impossible giants, on Tuesday night: pity.

78 Hours

This is how it is with Manchester United these days. It is endemic, habitual, seemingly scored into the very fabric of the club over the past eight years.

Last Saturday evening, Old Trafford was lightheaded, still swooning from the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo in a red jersey once more. United had beaten Newcastle. Ronaldo had returned with two goals. The club was top of the Premier League, being spoken of not only as a title contender — and let’s face it, Manchester United, four games into a season, is always a title contender — but as a force restored by the gentle touch of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a colossus once more bestriding the world.

By Tuesday night — 78 hours or so later — it felt as if United was on the verge of crisis. It had been beaten, in the last minute of extra time, by Young Boys of Bern, the sort of team that English football culture pigheadedly refuses to take seriously, in the sort of game that a Premier League team is told it has to win by a succession of pundits who have never seen its opponents play.

Solskjaer’s tactics were under the spotlight. His substitutions were being queried, his choices questioned, his capability doubted. Could United hope to fulfil its soaring ambitions while he remains at the wheel? Would the club be able to rescue its season by qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League, or was disaster waiting around the corner?

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Manchester United is a very good team. It is stocked with enormously talented players, including one of the greatest of all time. But its squad lacks the coherence of some of its rivals — most notably, Manchester City and Chelsea — and its style is not as highly defined as, say, Liverpool’s. Solskjaer is not a dogmatist, like Pep Guardiola, and he is not a tactician in the same league as Thomas Tuchel. The fanfare and the fatalism are both overblown.

What is significant, though, is the persistence of both and how quickly the atmosphere around the club can flit between the two. There is no team quite so volatile in European football as the modern Manchester United. That does not necessarily predicate against success — if it did, José Mourinho would have had a very different career — but it does suggest that the club is not quite where it wants or needs to be.

 

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