FC Barcelona has been handed a challenging draw in the knockout phase of the Europa League.
The Catalan giant has fallen on hard times of late and was surprisingly eliminated from the Champions League at the group stages. It’s the first time they failed to emerge from that stage of the competition in 17 years and a stark reflection of how far they’ve fallen in a short space of time. Not only were they humbled by Bayern Munich twice, losing 3-0 on two occasions, but Portuguese side Benfica also inflicted a heavy defeat on them. A 0-0 draw in the return leg with Benfica wasn’t enough to ensure they progressed to the knockout stages, and only two wins against Dynamo Kyiv kept them in Europe.
Following the defeat against Bayern in Germany, new manager Xavi told CBS 42 that a ‘new era’ started from ‘zero’, but that’s not going to be an easy promise to carry out. Going into Christmas week, Barca were already 18 points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid and five points behind Valencia, who occupy the final Champions League spot. They might have been eliminated this season, but there’s a real chance they won’t even qualify next time out.
One route into the Champions League is by winning the Europa League, and there was hope they could secure a favorable draw in that competition. Xavi has previously said he feels Barcelona does not belong in Europe’s secondary cup competition. He might get his wish as they’ve been handed a tie with Italian giants Napoli. It’s a game that will invoke plenty of emotion on both sides, as it’s the first time the two will meet since the passing of Diego Maradona. He appeared for both teams, winning silverware with both.
Usually, a game between the two would hold more fear for the Italians, but in February 2022, that will not be the case. As a Bwin Sports infographic shows, Barcelona has gone from being a football superpower to an international laughing stock in an alarmingly short space of time. Over the summer, they tried to give Lionel Messi a new contract, only to fall foul of financial fair play rules and lose their talisman. The Argentinian had never played for another club, but he’s now in the last 16 of the Champions League with his new club, Paris St Germain.
Things have gone from bad to worse; after an appalling start to La Liga, manager Ronald Koeman was fired, but not before a damaging feud between him and the club president laid their dirty washing out for the world to see. Former player Xavi returned to manage, but he’s got little experience outside Saudi Arabia and might not be the immediate answer to their problems. In a further blow, summer signing Sergio Agüero, a serial winner over his career, recently retired after just a handful of appearances for his new club.
With domestic success already off the table, the Europa League might have been the only opportunity the once-proud club had of salvaging something from the wreckage of this season. Still, success looked highly unlikely with Napoli drawn as opponents instead of potentially easier ties with Braga, Sheriff Tiraspol, Rangers or Olympiacos.
Sadly, that means the decline of this once great football club might only just have got started.
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