The Greatest of Falls From Grace – Barcelona in the Europa League

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Barcelona’s 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich on Wednesday ensured Los Cules would not be playing Champions League football after Christmas for the first time since 2001. Let’s take a look at their history in Europe’s second tier and what it could all mean for Barcelona and their new manager, Xavi.

The Greatest of Falls From Grace – Barcelona in the Europa League

A New Low for Barcelona

Barcelona’s fall from grace continued as they suffered the ignominy of a Champions League Group Stage exit for the first time in over two decades following a 3-0 dismantling at the hands of a Bayern Munich side barely out of second gear.

This was the culmination of a dismal overall showing from Los Cules, picking up just seven points and scoring a measly two goals across six games.

For context, in the prior 10 seasons, Barca had averaged 15 goals in the group stages alone.

Lionel Messi: before and after, in full view.

This all means that Barca will be competing in the second tier of European football for the first time since the ’03-04 season, when the now-named Europa League was known as the UEFA Cup.

It also adds to the farcical notion of a European Super League, when one of the only clubs still (publicly) pushing for it aren’t even amongst Europe’s best 16 sides.

Barca’s European Record is to Be Envied, but There’s a Notable Gap

But back to the Europa.

It’s no shock Barca haven’t been regular participants in recent times but perhaps surprisingly they’ve never added the trophy to the glittering cabinet at Camp Nou.

Even more so when you look at their European record – five Champions Leagues/European Cups & four European Cup Winners’ Cup, being record holders in the latter now-defunct competition.

The Spanish giants have had enough attempts to win it down the years, with 11 previous entries into the competition. The majority of these took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s when Barca became a fixture of the formative years of the UEFA Cup, normally as a result of second place finishes in La Liga.

Of course back then, only league champions dined at Europe’s top table, making somewhat of a mockery of the current name of the competition.

Semi-Final Heartache for Cruyff & Michels

The furthest Barcelona made in this time, and ever, was the semi-finals. Even while under the stewardship of legendary Dutch manager Rinus Michels and with a prime Johan Cruyff running the show on a weekly basis, the side came up just short in both the ’75-76 and ’77-78 seasons.

In ’75-76, they crashed out to a Liverpool side who would go onto lift the trophy for a second time, continuing a period of European dominance unmatched by any English side since – four European Cups in eight seasons followed, on top of their first UEFA Cup triumph in ’73. Unlucky, you could say.

In ’77-78, Michels and Cruyff faced a familiar foe in PSV Eindhoven, who they regularly bested in their time together at Ajax. This time, revenge was exacted as PSV secured their final berth with a 4-3 aggregate win. The UEFA Cup would make its way to Eindhoven soon after. You can see a trend, can’t you?

Same Story as Bayern and Liverpool Dump Barcelona Out at Semi-Final Stage Decades Later

Fast forward just under 20 years and the trend, curse, whatever you want to call it, struck again as Barcelona came unstuck in Europe to Bayern Munich once more, who went on to claim their sole UEFA Cup in ’96.

Five years later, Liverpool once again stood in the way of Los Cules’ path to the final. Barca only being there as a result of their, previously alluded to, last Champions League Group Stage exit in the winter of ’00. At the hands of another English outfit, Leeds United, nonetheless.

Does it even need to be said – they were dumped out by a Gary McAllister penalty at Anfield, as Liverpool marched on to Dortmund where they would capture their third UEFA Cup in arguably the competition’s best ever final – 5-4 win over Alaves. Look it up.

Four semi-finals. Four losses. All four victors win the trophy. Nothing if not consistent.

Riijkard, Ronaldinho, Revolution

The next time Barcelona found themselves in the second tier in ’03-04 was due to a sixth place finish in La Liga the previous season, their lowest in 15 years.

Semi-final heartbreak was avoided here as the Catalan giants crashed out to Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in the round of 16, an Alan Thompson strike sealing their fate in a 1-0 aggregate defeat.

While this all sounds rather bleak, the season acted as a springboard to major success for the club, as Frank Riijkard and Ronaldinho had joined the club in the summer of 2003. Two La Liga titles and a Champions League triumph would soon follow.

A Springboard to Success for Xavi?

A tad unrealistic for present day Barcelona and their new gaffer Xavi, who featured in those ties vs. Celtic and Liverpool, but the sentiment remains the same.

Xavi can use the Europa League as a starting point to better times for his team and his club.

Let’s face it, even if they had made it through the groups, humiliation awaited somewhere. And it’s entirely plausible that their best route to Champions League football next season is through victory in Europe’s second competition. It might also be the best place for some of their young players to thrive and grow, who knows.

Europa League Knockouts – Not So Second Rate This Time Around 

It won’t be easy, however, for Barcelona as this season’s Europa knockouts are shaping up to be the most stacked in years.

Just look at some of the other sides dropping into it: Dortmund, Leipzig, Porto, Atalanta and Sevilla, who may as well have the trophy renamed after them at this stage.

Throw in two more Spanish sides, Betis and Socidead, as well as Napoli and West Ham while you’re at it.

Leverkusen. Lazio. The list goes on.

A Shot at Redemption, a Shot at History

Xavi has already stated Barca’s goal is to win the Europa. If he does, not only will he possibly be saving the club’s short-term future, he’ll be making history – a first final and first triumph, which would make Los Cules just the sixth club to land European football’s three historic trophies.

All to play for.

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