This season was meant to be different but Barcelona have again suffered a humiliating and costly Champions League group-stage exit.
Xavi made his Barcelona players watch Inter’s game against Viktoria Plzen at San Siro, ahead of their own Champions League clash with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou. It must have made for painful viewing.
Inter’s predictably facile 4-0 win means Barcelona are out of the Champions League – and back in the Europa League.
For the second year in succession, the five-time European Cup winners have effectively been relegated to the continent’s second division.
Xavi has argued that the Champions League has been “cruel” to his side this season.
He was “p*ssed” off that Barca lost at Bayern on matchday two. “We were the better team,” the coach claimed with a degree of justification. “We dominated them.”
Joan Laporta, meanwhile, felt that the officiating in the 1-0 loss to Inter at San Siro had been “scandalous”, and the two handball goals that effectively decided a close contest were dreadfully inconsistent.
In truth, though, Barca can have no complaints about their second consecutive group-stage exit.
Indeed, they didn’t even deserve the point which kept their slim hopes of progression alive until matchday five.
Inter dominated the second half of the two sides’ 3-3 draw at Camp Nou and were coasting to a famous win until a deflected goal from Robert Lewandowski sparked a chaotic conclusion.
Even then, Simone Inzaghi’s side squandered a glorious chance to win the game – and seal their place in the last 16 with two rounds to spare – when Kristjan Asllani butchered a brilliant breakaway in the dying seconds.
It was little more than a stay of execution, though, and Sergio Busquets & Co. knew it.
Barcelona slumped to a 3-1 loss at the Santiago Bernabeu that saw Real Madrid reclaim top spot in La Liga, thus piling the pressure on Xavi.
“I won’t blame the players,” he stated. “I’m responsible. It’s my mistake, specific errors…”
His loyalty to Busquets has certainly been questionable, given Barca look a far more dynamic side with Frenkie de Jong at the base of the midfield.
In Xavi’s defence, though, Barca have clearly improved this season. That loss at Madrid remains the only blot on their copybook in La Liga, where they’ve only conceded four times in total.
Their domestic defensive record is particularly impressive in light of their unfortunate run of injuries to centre-backs.
The nagging concern, though, is that Xavi’s Barcelona struggle to get results against the big boys in the games that really matter, especially in continental competition.
Remember, they were knocked out of last season’s Europa League, at home, by Eintracht Frankfurt, while Xavi’s record in the Champions League presently reads: Played 6; Won 1 (against Viktoria Plzen); Drawn 2, Lost 3.
Such disappointing results may have been forgivable last season, when he was just settling back into a club still coming to terms with the chaos caused by Josep Maria Bartomeu’s disastrous reign as president, but not anymore.
Not after a €160 million (£138m/$156m) summer spending spree which saw Laporta use future profits to fund present-day success.
And, ominously for Xavi, the president has already admitted that after signing the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde, he “really didn’t expect to be in this situation [in Europe] because the technical secretary and coaching staff had put together a very competitive team”.
Indeed, Laporta firmly believes that he assembled a squad capable of challenging any side in Europe, and yet Barca are out of the Champions League before Christmas.
He insists that there is nothing to worry about from a financial perspective – despite the fact that Barca were literally banking on making the quarter-finals, even including the prize money in their budget for 2022-23.
“Missing out on the latter stages is a big blow, but we won’t miss all of that €25m-35m,” Laporta told the club’s in-house TV channel.
“There are ways to make up for that. We will continue to work on new sponsorship and other possibilities, and playing in the Europa League would still bring in money.
“The net impact will be less than what we’d miss out on for not playing in the Champions League.”
Failing to finish in the top four in La Liga would, therefore, be the real catalyst for financial meltdown at Barca, and there appears little danger of that right now.
Indeed, Xavi was even forced to defend the quality of the Spanish top flight after last weekend’s 4-0 rout of Athletic Club. Still, such facile wins are a blessing for him right now.
Laporta had already switched his attention to La Liga before Barca’s Champions League elimination had been confirmed and Xavi knows that for all the progress he’s clearly made with a team that contains several exciting youngsters, he simply has to deliver a major trophy this season, given the extent of the summer expenditure.
How different the atmosphere would be at Camp Nou right now had Xavi been promised time and patience, allowed to work with the potential stars already at his disposal, rather than saddled with the expensive signings that made instant success a must.
“With the effort made by the club and the squad we have, we have to compete for trophies,” he acknowledged after the Madrid loss.
“And if we don’t win, as the president said, there will be consequences, starting with me. If we don’t win, another coach will come in.”
There is no suggestion as of yet that Laporta is lining up possible replacements.
Even though he was privately enraged by Barca’s performance against Inter at Camp Nou, he has repeatedly insisted in public that Xavi retains his full support, which is hardly surprising given he has made the club icon one of the poster boys of his second stint as president.
However, now that the Champions League is gone, Laporta, Xavi and indeed Barcelona simply cannot afford this season to end without silverware.
Indeed, more economic ‘levers’ may soon be pulled to strengthen the squad, with Laporta admitting that more arrivals are possible during the January transfer window.
Doubling down on this bid to spend their way out of trouble may seem unwise. Laporta has, after all, already taken a massive gamble, but he clearly feels he has to raise the stakes after Champions League elimination.
Put quite simply: Barcelona need to be successful this season, from a sporting, commercial and financial perspective.
The strength of their brand is key to the health of their bank balance, and for too long now Barca have been synonymous with heavy losses on and off the field.
Laporta has repeatedly insisted that “Barcelona are back” but it’s clear that they still have a long way to go.
Group-stage elimination would have been unthinkable during the heyday of Lionel Messi. Now it is in danger of becoming a regular occurrence because of Barca’s precarious position, which is why Laporta is still pushing so hard for the Super League to ensure economic stability.
Because the football field certainly offers no guarantees, as this season’s results have hammered home.
Last season’s Champions League exit was clearly no fluke; Barcelona have lost their seat at Europe’s top table and are no closer to reclaiming it.
They’re back in the Europa League and, right now, that’s where they belong, both as a team and a club.
That might be hard for the fans to take but as Xavi said himself, “We don’t deserve to play in the Champions League. It hurts me, but it’s the truth.”