Live to fight another day. That was probably what Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman thought about the hour on Tuesday, as he 2-0 down at home and heading for defeat to Bayern Munich, hooked veterans Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto and made the football equivalent of a cheated basketball coach clear his bench.
Then came Gavi and Yusuf Demir, two guys who together are 35 years old, have played a total of 47 first-team minutes and probably would not be recognized by many Barca fans if they showed up at the front door to deliver a pizza.
Koeman went even further less than 15 minutes later when he replaced Jordi Alba with Alejandro Balde, an 18-year-old who made his debut for the club.
It is not uncommon for leaders to bleed young people towards the end of a blowout victory (bask in glory) or a blowout defeat (fans tend not to bow children). But the circumstances here were strange. Sure, Barca were played out – they had not managed a shot on goal – but the deficit was only two goals, one of them was a wild deflection when Thomas Muller shot out of Eric Garcia’s backside.
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A comeback was unlikely, but not unthinkable, and then there was the weight of the story. Barcelona had not lost a Champions League home opener … ever. And no team that lost on match day 1 of the group stage has ever won the competition in the same season. But no matter; Koeman is obviously not superstitious.
Or, if he is, he knows the power of narrative. It is no coincidence that the three guys who came from are all Catalans and club legends – with around 1300 senior matches between them – who spent time in Barcelona’s famous academy. And the three guys who replaced them are all children born in the third millennium who are tasked with keeping the club’s glorious history alive.
Corny? Slightly. But not untrue. Bringing players through La Masia has historically been Barcelona’s strength and will have to be again. This night it made no difference; the substitutions had little effect, and Robert Lewandowski subsequently added his second goal to seal Bayern’s emphatic victory.
Sure, if you were of a more cynical nature, you could just conclude that all of this was Koeman’s way of saying, “What the hell am I supposed to do? A bunch of players are inaccessible and I have nothing on the bench?”
And he would have had a point there. Among the established benefits on his bench were a guy who returned from an injury (Sergino Dest), a guy who has not played since last season (Riqui Puig), a guy who had not played at all since 2020 (Philippe Coutinho ) and a guy Barcelona tried to relieve in the summer but could not because he earns so much (Samuel Umtiti).
This is the reality of Barcelona. Sure, it may change a bit if Ansu Fati returns to full fitness and lives up to the hype (but remember, he has not played for 10 months and is still only 18; loading unrealistic expectations for a child his age is both unfair and foolish) and if Ousmane Dembele comes back and avoids injury (he has never started more than 22 league games in his career).
But beyond that, you grab straws if you think the cavalry is going to come out of the hospital and turn Blaugrana into graduates.
Who are we talking about? Sergio Aguero, who is 33 years old and was signed to be Lionel Messi’s sidekick as it looked like Barca might be able to afford to keep their legendary forward, has not played since June, has missed the best part of the last two seasons and fought, when did he get on the field in that time? Martin Braithwaite? Great attitude, blue neck hero, but if he’s the answer, you’re asking the wrong questions.
Koeman understands this and commented on the “quality difference” after the match. He gets the last six weeks of trauma, the crying goodbye to Messi, the flirtation with insolvency, the realization that the club is the third, if not fourth, force in LaLiga. On a night like this against a Bayern side that – despite not being irresistible, were streets ahead – there was no competition.
Best to recognize it, figure out how to finish ahead of the other two teams in the group — Benfica and Dynamo Kiev — and shoot for a top-four finish in the LaLiga. That would ensure a return to the Champions League next season and, just as importantly, get some of that prize money flowing into the Camp Nou coffers.
Barca fans understand the severity of the situation and know it’s the only way to stop the rot. In fact, they might rather see kids like Gavi, Demir and Balde try to get the grade, than see the heroes from before at the end of a home battle.