Not even two whole months after the last time the sky over Catalonia was falling, Barcelona find themselves spiraling downward into a state of anxiety and dread. And while that time the Atlases in Barça’s squad were able to hold the sky up in the most improbable of circumstances, this time it might be better for everyone if everything comes crashing down.
Yesterday’s Champions League match against Juventus incited this latest fit of madness. Juventus, as Paris Saint-Germain did before them, exposed Barcelona as the top-heavy, ill-functioning unit they’ve been all season. The Italian club waltzed to a surprisingly easy and actually quite uneventful 3-0 win at home in the first leg of the quarterfinal tie. It puts them in commanding position to progress to the semifinals, as it will take a miraculous comeback on Barça’s behalf, the likes of which we haven’t seen since ... well, since Barça clawed out from an even deeper hole a few weeks ago. Still, Juve are better than PSG, and it would be an enormous shock if they let Barcelona run all over them in this second leg the way PSG did in theirs.
From Barcelona’s perspective, while the Juventus loss was nowhere near as emasculating as the first leg of the PSG tie, it’s still an embarrassment. True, Barcelona didn’t play horribly, and Juventus were smarter than they were dominant. The Old Lady’s two early goals were mostly a product of Barça’s structural awkwardness and Paulo Dybala’s great finishing, and jumping out to that lead allowed the home team to sit safe and deep and counter-attack for the vast majority of the match—a plan they executed masterfully.
Nevertheless, this is a team with Messi and Neymar and Suárez, three of about the five best players in the world, all of whom play in the most important area of the pitch. Getting bounced from Europe’s preeminent competition at the quarterfinal stage yet again and continually gagging away their chances to put up a real fight in the domestic league is unacceptable. And with the Clàsico against Real Madrid on the horizon—a match Neymar won’t play in due to suspension—there is potential for the end of Barcelona’s season to get really, really ugly. I, for one, can’t wait.
The situation at Barcelona is in some ways a mirror image of what’s happening at Arsenal. Those in charge at Arsenal would like nothing more than for the team to do just enough to cool the acrimony and unrest amongst its fans so that the club can re-sign manager Arsène Wenger to a new contract and maintain the status quo. Only the product on the field has been too regularly humiliating to allow for this, which means there is a chance the Gunners’ leadership might have to make some drastic changes—arguably much needed and overdue ones—to keep the peace. In that way, things going very bad for Arsenal in the short-term might lead to something very good in the long run.
Something similar is going on in Barcelona. Like many businesses, Barcelona are run by a bunch of chickenshit incompetents who care about nothing more than protecting their tenuous grasp on power. Every move they make is centered on what they believe will placate the voting body of club members who elected them into office and have the ability to toss them out should they see fit. In their ideal world, the Barcelona first team would win every trophy every season with a team full of fan favorites who are so good the squad doesn’t need to be improved, and the president and his men could rake in piles and piles of cash for the club as they are applauded by the adoring club members who attribute to the board all of the good times.
However, when the team is losing and the culprit is quite obviously the seasons-long mismanagement by a board that allowed the otherworldly talents of the three forwards to overshadow a steadily declining supporting cast, they tend to panic. And panic means spending money on things the team actually needs, so panic might be good.
Think of it like this. Barcelona’s season could end up as a great, mediocre, or a poor one. A great season would involve a triumphant comeback against Juventus, a win in the Clàsico, and at least two trophies when it’s all over. A mediocre season would include a respectable but ultimately failed performance in the second leg against Juve, maybe a creditable draw against Real Madrid, and a hard-fought but losing effort to retain the league title. A poor one would see another bad loss to Juve, a loss in the Clàsico, and a meek late-season end to the league season as Barça finish a distant second to the champions in Madrid.
Judging how the season has gone so far, the great end to the campaign is exceedingly unlikely, the mediocre one probable, and the poor one very possible. The reason why Barcelona fans might prefer a bad end to a mediocre one is that it might freak out the board and compel them into doing something good.
The club’s manager search is a good example of the board’s bland preferences that might get mercifully changed if Barça’s season ends in relative chaos. After manager Luis Enrique announced a couple months ago that he would not coach the team next season, it soon became evident that the board would not go out and seek one of the many great, promising or established managers out there in world soccer and instead preferred to bring in some uninspiring, cheaply acquired name who, by dint of being a former Barcelona player, would be an easy sell to the unimaginative club members. This is how Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde and Luis Enrique’s current No. 2 man Juan Carlos Unzué became big favorites for the job.
However, if this season ends in embarrassing fashion, the board might feel the need to make a flashier managerial hire, and might actually go after a non-traditional name with more potential upside. Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli is the most obvious choice for this kind of manager, but there are also names like Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel and maybe even Juve’s Max Allegri who could be had if Barça were interested. It’s baffling that a club like Barcelona wouldn’t instinctively search long and wide for the best possible coach to lead their squad of superstars, but if anything might force them into something other than making a safe pick, it would be a catastrophic end to this season.
The transfer front is similar. One of the under-appreciated benefits of Barcelona’s comeback against PSG was that it unsettled PSG’s young star midfielder, Marco Verratti. Verratti is already one of the five best central midfielders in the world at just 24 years old, and would be the absolute ideal addition to Barcelona’s squad.
He’s also at a club that is richer than God and would have no need to sell him, making the prospect of bringing him to Spain nearly impossible and breathtakingly expensive. By losing in such stunning fashion in the Round of 16, however, Verratti has since sounded jaded about the French club’s prospects of matching his own personal ambitions and now might try to push for a way out if someone like Barça came knocking.
In normal circumstances, Barcelona’s board would probably balk at the enormous sum of money it would take to even turn PSG’s head for a player who isn’t a forward and thus wouldn’t sell a billion jerseys and score 30 goals every season. If the board were extra motivated to find a solution to the team’s playing woes by a shameful end to this season, though, they might be convinced to do whatever it took to finally bring in the spiritual heir to Xavi.
The question for Barcelona fans is one of preference. Would you prefer the team save face with a decent end to the season and the risk of long-term stagnation that kind of finish could lead to? Or do you think it might be better if things got pretty messy and inspired some much-needed, comprehensive change? Obviously it would be fairly ridiculous for fans to actively root for their team to fail—unless, of course, we’re talking about ass-backward American sports leagues where failure is literally rewarded—but if true success is unlikely, it’s not crazy to hope to endure some short-term disappointment when it might lead to a brighter future. It’s like the saying goes: No pain, no gain.