Europe European Leagues

Barcelona Set to Play Europa League Football for the First Time Since 2003

How the mighty have fallen. Spanish giants FC Barcelona were dumped out of the 2021/22 UEFA Champions League after suffering a heavy 3-0 defeat away at German behemoths Bayern Munich, a result that ensured that the Blaugrana would finish third in their group. The Catalans, who had qualified to the Champions League knockouts on a regular basis since the 2004/05 season, face the ignominy of playing in Europe’s second-tier club competition, the UEFA Europa League, for the first time since the 2003/04 season.

Barcelona’s heavy defeat, coupled with a win for Portugal’s Benfica over Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, meant that Xavi’s men would repeat their Champions League exit from 2000/01, where they finished third behind Italy’s AC Milan and England’s Leeds United to qualify to the UEFA Cup, the predecessor of the current Europa League.

To Barca’s credit, they did well in Europe’s second-tier competition that season, eliminating the likes of Club Brugge (Belgium), AEK Athens (Greece), and fellow Spaniards in Celta Vigo before being knocked out in the semifinals by eventual winners Liverpool (England).

As for Barcelona’s most recent exploit in Europe’s second-tier club competition in the 2003/04 season, the Blaugrana – who finished sixth in the 2002/03 La Liga season – managed to knock out Slovakia’s Matador Puchov (now MSK Puchov), Greece’s Panionios, and Danish giants Brondby, before being eliminated in the fourth round by Scottish titans Glasgow Celtic.

However, considering the quality of opposition that Barcelona will face in the Europa League, especially with the fact that they were demoted to the competition alongside fellow CL third-placers Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla, FC Porto, Zenit Saint-Petersburg, RB Leipzig, and potentially defending Europa League champions Villarreal, meant that the challenge will be tougher for Xavi and his men to navigate their way into this season’s EL final at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium in Seville.

Barcelona’s early exit from the Champions League wasn’t the fault of Xavi, in fact, the Bayern defeat was the new manager’s second-ever CL match in charge of the Blaugrana. Barca’s decline was the result of years upon years of mismanagement underneath the presidency of Josep Bartomeu, as well as the poor tenure of Xavi’s predecessor Ronald Koeman as manager, leaving the Barcelona legend, alongside current president Joan Laporta, to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

Bartomeu’s presidency had run Barcelona’s finances to the ground, to the point of them being unable to finance the wages of their crown jewel of a superstar Lionel Messi, leaving the Catalans no choice but to let their greatest ever player walk out on them for free. Barca’s debts were so great, they were unable to sign any players on a fee, being only able to bring in Sergio Aguero, Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia, and Dani Alves on free transfers as well as Yusuf Demir and Luuk de Jong on loan.

And while Barcelona’s decline this season means that they will have little chance of achieving Champions League success, many were shocked to see that Barca had exited the competition quite early, while at the same time expressing that it’s the culmination of the tumultuous drama enveloping the club in recent times.

“Barca has staged a resignation from football’s elite by exiting the Champions League,” wrote Spanish sports news website AS, “They fell without any complaint against a Bayern Munich that, again in third gear and without giving the feeling of wanting to humiliate, dislodged Barca 3-0 with the attitude of a tired tiger who is lazy to hunt a baby gazelle, but does what nature expects of him.”

Former Chelsea and Liverpool midfielder Joe Cole had a damning assessment of the current Barcelona side, saying as quoted from both BBC Sport and BT Sport, “They simply can’t compete in the Champions League with that group of players.”

And Spanish football journalist Pete Jenson had this to say, as quoted from BBC Sport, “There’s such a gap now between the best teams in Europe and Barcelona. They’re in a different league now in the Europa League and I don’t think too many of their supporters think they can even win that. They’ve got some serious issues looming – sponsorship deals are running out and they’ve got financial implications to deal with too. They won’t talk about it but they were heavily failing two or three seasons ago; it was Messi that was keeping them afloat and in the competitions.”

Despite this massive setback, Xavi remained optimistic that he could turn the Blaugrana‘s season around.

“A new era starts today,” said Xavi as quoted from ESPN Sport, having told the media that the Bayern result left him ‘very angry,’ “We start from zero. Our objective is the Champions League, not the Europa League but that is our reality now and we have to try and win it. We have to start to get Barca back where they belong, which is not in the Europa League. This is also a hammer blow for me as a coach. We will work hard to bring Barca back, but we have to change a lot, of course.”

Barcelona players Sergio Busquets and Ronald Araujo echoed Xavi’s sentiments – their team wasn’t good enough at the Allianz Arena and they deserved their elimination.

“We feel very bad right now. We’re in a tough, difficult situation. We got ourselves into this mess and it hurts a lot,” said Busquets, as quoted from DAZN.

Araujo added, from his interview with Movistar, “It’s a damning result and they had chances to make it worse. Ultimately, we didn’t qualify because of this game but because of what we did in the other games (where Barca lost 3-0 to Benfica and could only muster up wins against last-placed Dynamo Kyiv). It’s true that, right now, we’re not among the best teams in Europe. If we were, we’d have qualified. Our objective now is to win the Europa League. We have to go out to compete and try to win it.”

Unlike previous seasons, 3rd placed finishers in this season’s Champions League group stages will have to undergo a play-off knockout round against runners-up of this season’s Europa League groups. The third placers are unseeded for the play-off draw, which will be held on Monday, with Barcelona’s potential opponents include Glasgow Rangers, either Eintracht Frankfurt or Olympiacos from the Europa League’s Group D, and either Galatasaray or Lazio from the Europa League’s Group E.

Win that play-off tie and Barcelona could potentially face the likes of West Ham United, Olympique Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, and AS Monaco in the Round of 16.