Barcelona’s Champions League group stage showdown with Bayern Munich on Wednesday night was cast in a high stakes spotlight Bill Shankly would have approved of.
Before the game Gerard Pique gravely warned: ”We know the only result is a win in order to be alive for the next round of the Champions League.” Barcelona’s official Twitter account echoed the life and death sentiment by posting: “It’s do or die time in Munich.”
In the end, Bayern slaughtered their visitors by an exceedingly comfortable 3-0 scoreline that sent Barcelona tumbling out of the Champions League group stages for the first time since the 2000/01 campaign.
The Xavi Hernandez revolution lasted just three games before the Bayern mauling confirmed consecutive defeats under the former midfield great, with a limp performance all too familiar to his successor's nadir against the same opponents, by the same scoreline in September.
Ronald Koeman sent Barcelona out for their first group game of the campaign in a reactive 5-3-2 shell. The hosts mustered just five shots, failing to force Manuel Neuer into a single save all night. Under Xavi on Wednesday night, a system that at times dropped into a five-man defence off the ball did at least up that tally to seven shots, forcing Bayern’s antsy and underworked number one into two tame stops.
Yet, Barcelona's anointed saviour - and they very much do need saving - fell foul of the same tactical inadequacies against Bayern as Koeman. Most notable of all was the space Leroy Sane was consistently afforded drifting in off his left flank.
Time and again Frenkie de Jong was left exacerbated by the lack of pressure Sane was gifted when receiving the ball as Bayern built up from the back at Camp Nou. In the ghostly surrounds of an empty Allianz Arena on Wednesday night, Bayern's number ten was again picking up the same pockets of unoccupied green grass.
For Bayern's opening goal Sane collected a pass punched into him between Barcelona's ever widening lines, turning to spring Robert Lewandowski cantering into the visitors' box as he set up Thomas Muller. Sane took up a similar position on the edge of the area for the game's second goal, spanking a long-range effort past the flapping Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Xavi's side did at least keep Bayern's prolific Pole off the scoresheet on Wednesday - a minor victory - but Lewandowski has still netted more goals (27) than the entire Barcelona squad across all competitions this season (25).
The Blaugrana finished their unsuccessful group stage campaign with a pitiful tally of just two goals - 27 players have racked up more on their own in this season's competition so far. The Catalan's have also hit a try spell domestically; a tally of 23 La Liga goals from 15 games is their lowest since the 2003/04 campaign.
Even more damningly, Barcelona have just as many points in Spain's top flight - another 18-year low. They trail fourth-placed Atletico Madrid by six and their supposed clasico rival Real Madrid have galloped an embarrassing 16 points clear of the Catalans already.
One of the most telling lines from Barcelona’s 1-0 defeat to Real Betis last weekend slipped out the mouth of their own left back Jordi Alba, who described Manuel Pellegrini’s side as ‘a direct rival’. If the Europa League’s Betis are at Barcelona’s level - by their own admission - how were they ever going to compete against Bayern Munich? Logically enough, they didn't.
Barcelona had effectively been tossed out of this season's Champions League by half-time of their last group stage game, yet the club budgeted for involvement in the quarter-finals before the season began.
The Catalan giants' dire financial standing was already abundantly clear when they had their wage bill for the current campaign slashed by €250m in light of their haemorrhaging finances, exacerbated by the COVID-pandemic. A group stage departure compounds these woes, robbing the club of more than €20m it had already accounted for according to MARCA.
Even if they win the Europa League - which, given Barcelona’s form thus far, requires a mighty leap of faith - the club will have earned €5.3m less than it anticipated just from European competition alone. This early exit not only puts the kibosh on any top tier continental action for the rest of the season, but limits the funds at Xavi’s disposal as he tries to rebuild a team in his image going forward.
At his unveiling Xavi outlined the outrageous standards Barcelona players have to hold themselves to whatever the game: “This is Barcelona and here a draw is not good enough. I learned that as a kid. Barça have to win every game. When we drew or lost it was like a funeral, there have to be consequences.”
Wednesday’s death sentence of a defeat will certainly usher in a wealth of repercussions, to say the least.