Game over. The delusions of grandeur can now finally be laid to rest. The years of feast are over and the years of famine are at hand. Barcelona are now a Europa League team, and in many ways this trouncing in the Munich snow merely confirmed what we have already long known about them.
Whatever Barcelona once knew, they have forgotten; whatever they once had, they have lost. This club’s enormous debt can be measured not just in cash but in expertise, in talent, in pure footballing instinct.
The house was already crumbling. We knew that too. And yet every passing month brings fresh indignities. Barcelona have already experienced the flash sales, the half-empty stadiums, the 8-2 against Bayern, losing the greatest player of all time for free and replacing him with Luuk de Jong.
In terms of La Liga points they are closer to Levante in 20th place than Real Madrid in first. But elimination from the Champions League group stage – for the first time in 21 years – felt like another critical watershed: a second-tier competition for a second-rate club.
There will be tangible, short-term consequences. Barcelona’s finances –already around £1.2 billion in the red – will take another monstrous hit. Their chances of attracting fresh players in January have also receded. But perhaps the biggest blow is to their sense of self.
“Today is the start of a new chapter for us,” Xavi admitted. “We have to start demanding a lot more of ourselves. We must use this as a turning point to change many things. We are going to face this reality with all the dignity in the world and work to bring Barça back to where we deserve to be, which is not the Europa League. It really annoys me to face our reality. I am angry. Barça does not deserve this.”
And yet going into this game they still held out faint hope. A win here, or anything other than a Benfica win against Dynamo Kiev, would do the trick.
And yet both their lottery tickets were effectively shredded within the space of 45 minutes, as Benfica ran into an early 2-0 lead in Lisbon and Bayern eased into a two-goal lead of their own despite never really seeming to get out of third gear.
Already qualified, Bayern had vowed to be ruthless. And in the absence of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich this was very close to Julian Nagelsmann’s strongest starting XI. It took them about 20 minutes to work out Barcelona’s lop-sided 4-3-3, and before long their celebrated front four were feasting on the open spaces behind the full-backs, running at defenders who looked not just outmatched but downright scared.
This was the pattern for the first goal: a simple ball in behind from Leroy Sané, Robert Lewandowski toying with the creaking Gerard Pique before crossing for Thomas Müller to score with a looping header. Lewandowski and Bayern have done this to far better teams than Barcelona, of course, but there was a sort of sadism to them here, brought into sharp relief by the paucity of Barcelona’s ambition.
This much was evident late in the first half, when Ousmane Dembélé ran forlornly at the Bayern defence, pursued by four red shirts and none of his own teammates, who had stayed well back to catch their breath ahead of the inevitable next surge.
Barcelona came with no greater aim than to limit the damage caused by their opponents, and they couldn’t even do that.
By then Barcelona were already 2-0 down, Sané smashing the ball in from 25 yards after neat work by Kingsley Coman on the right. Jordi Alba had succumbed to an early injury, the ethereal Sergiño Dest was withdrawn at half-time, and Xavi’s plan of carving Bayern open on the flanks was in tatters.
This was only his fifth game in charge, a game he described in advance as “a final”. Certainly, as Barcelona continued to try playing champagne football with Lidl grapes, it felt like the end of something. The sumptuous Jamal Musiala made it 3-0 after a raking diagonal ball from Lewandowski and a neat cross from Alphonso Davies.
It could yet be the beginning of something for Barcelona, too, if Xavi has the vision to look beyond Guardiola-era nostalgia and its empty, comforting tropes and actually think about what works in elite football in 2021. Their midfield has guile but lacks sharpness; their attack has sharpness but lacks guile; their defence is frankly an embarrassment, and often any relationship between the three is entirely coincidental.
You could see them trying to work things out as the game leaked away: making their triangles, pressing with purpose, trying forlornly to create something from nothing. But really, there are no quick fixes here. For Barcelona the road back will be nasty and brutish, and it will not be short.