Barcelona: This year in Europe it was supposed to be different but Barcelona will have to do it the hard way, with coach Xavi Hernandez watching his credit start to drain.
Xavi insisted the Catalans are on the right track after winning La Liga last season and their three opening Champions League matches, but a shock 1-0 defeat by Shakhtar Donetsk stopped them dead in their tracks on a chilling Tuesday night in Hamburg.
Barca were expected to clinch qualification to the Champions League knock-out rounds but fell woefully short, failing to significantly trouble the Ukrainian champions at any point in the game.
“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 arrives hot on the heels of two other disappointments.
Losing the Clasico in stoppage time against rivals Real Madrid on October 28 was a morale blow, and even though Barca beat Real Sociedad 1-0 on Saturday, they were lucky to do so after a weak performance.
What they offered against Shakhtar was more of the same, with Xavi suggesting it might be a “mental” problem, rather than a physical one or an issue with the team’s football.
“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.
Spanish reports suggest the club are looking for a way to bring in striker Vitor Roque in January.
The Catalans have already signed the 18-year-old from Brazilian side Athletico Paranaense but do not currently have the financial leeway to register him in the winter window.
It might be one way of arresting the slump the team have fallen into, a far cry from mid-September when they thrashed Real Betis and Royal Antwerp 5-0 back-to-back.
Xavi heralded those performances as among the best of his two years in charge, but on Tuesday they were operating at the other end of the spectrum.
Even though Barcelona will likely still progress, it was a performance to suggest advancing beyond that will pose a significant challenge.
The Catalans have improved under Xavi, but perhaps not quite enough to satisfy president Joan Laporta or a demanding fanbase.
“When I don’t feel I can provide the solutions, I will step aside and go home,” said Xavi a year ago, as Barca faced Champions League elimination. The team is calling out for solutions now.