It is safe to claim that the past two seasons brought bitter disappointment to Barcelona in the Champions League; vying to become the first team to defend the Champions League in its current format and even being considered favorites to do so, Barcelona unexpectedly fell against Chelsea in the 2011-2012 semifinals, a tie marred by a lot of unbelievable misses in front of the goal, including Messi’s penalty in the second leg. A year later, there was no heartbreak in the semifinals, but rather humiliation as a Messi-less Barcelona lost to eventual champions Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate on what many speculated could mark the end of an era, given the ease with which the Blaugrana were dispatched.
This doesn’t seem to be the case at all though; Gerardo Martino had a great start to his tenure at the club and the squad was upgraded in the summer, especially with the signing of Neymar, leading to an excellent first half of the season. Once again, the Catalans emerge as one of the main candidates to win the Champions League, a competition where they’ve reached the semifinals for a record-breaking 6 editions in a row, and counting. This year, as expected, qualification from the group stages was achieved rather easily, with two games to spare, and the focus is already on the knockout stages. While winning La Liga is always a big goal for the club, winning the Champions League is always the bigger and more prestigious aim. No one at the club makes a secret of their ambition of being the best in Europe, especially at a time where La Liga is only becoming less and less competitive.
Not Without Messi
One thing that last season made very clear is that, in order to win another Champions League title, Barcelona will need Lionel Messi at his best. Sanchez, Neymar, Pedro and co. are all excellent players, but Messi is on another planet altogether: his mere presence on the pitch adds a lot of dimensions to the team’s game, let alone his impact when he’s at his best. While Barcelona do seem more prepared than last year to be competitive in Messi’s absence, the truth is they still need him if they want to actually win the title. Only Messi can provide that extra edge and spark Barcelona’s attack needs to bring down the top defenses in the continent. But that’s not all Barcelona need; with some of their key players, especially Puyol and Xavi, not getting any younger, the management of the available resources will be absolutely crucial and potentially the difference between success and failure – after all the spine of the squad is still pretty much the same of the sextuple year in 2009. With the Spanish league getting more unbalanced by the year, there will only be a few matches where Tata will actually need to field his best lineup to win; even without Messi, Barcelona have generally been cruising. Martino will have enough freedom to make sure that all his stars get to the crunch stages of the Champions League with as much energy left in the tank as possible, which certainly wasn’t the case last year.
Heavyweights In The Way
Unlike at the height of their powers under Guardiola, this Champions League really can’t be considered Barcelona’s to lose, although they are among the favorites. Defending champions Bayern Munich have been looking ominous under Guardiola himself and the clear favorites to finally put an end to the ‘curse’ of no one having defended the title in the competition’s current format. Then of course there’s Real Madrid, looking great at the moment under Ancelotti and aiming for a historic 10th Champions title, with Ronaldo’s bliestering form so far this season only boosting their chances. Then there’s quite a few teams who, despite not being in the very first tier of favorites, have the potential to cause an upset, like Juventus, Dortmund and PSG. It will mostly come down to who has the best form and fitness when the deciding stages come among the top teams in Europe; with the likes of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and co. all fit and firing on all cylinders, Barcelona would back themselves against pretty much any team in the continent but without even one of them (especially if it’s Messi like last year) the road to Lisbon will get substantially more difficult.
The Time Is Now
While the La Liga title is obviously a big goal as well, the main focus is always on the much coveted Champions League trophy, especially as the club knows there’s no guarantee they’ll be as consistently competitive as they’ve been lately once the Messi/Xavi/Iniesta generation declines or retires – now is the time to add to the club’s trophy cabinet. The first step is to beat Celtic in the last matchday of the group stages and ensure first place in the group and therefore a (theoretically) easier opponent for the round of 16. After that, it will all come down to how Martino manages the resources at his disposal and of course a bit of luck.