European Football

Barcelona broken, PSG in crisis - are European football's giants in decline?

The perennial Champions League challengers are miles off Bayern and Liverpool and they are only heading in one direction

 
9:00am on Friday 6th November 2020
By
Harry De Cosemo

When Barcelona travelled to Juventus on Champions League matchday two, it was a sad occasion.

While it should have been enhanced by an atmosphere created by thousands at the Allianz Stadium and a pre-match buzz that galvanised everybody ahead of what, on paper, was a heavyweight clash, the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible. Even if supporters had been permitted to attend in Turin, it is unlikely the game would have lived up to the billing anyway. There is something about European football that nobody wants to talk about.

It is hard to deny that the worldwide situation has had an impact on the game at the top level; finances, while still eye-watering, were significantly slashed during the last transfer window. A schedule that has been bursting at the seams for weeks after a hastily concocted end to the previous campaign hasn’t helped, either.

But a wider problem of poor club management has swept right across the continent; the concept of the ‘super club’ has become very prominent over the last 15 years or so as football grew more business-centric. Right now, on the pitch at least, all of the so called elite institutions are at a low ebb, with the exception of European champions Bayern Munich.

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Barcelona’s problems have been most sharply in the firing line. Their implosion in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern in August saw them reach boiling point; it first led to manager Quique Setien’s sacking and subsequent arrival of Ronald Koeman, and then a public transfer saga from hell as Lionel Messi demanded to leave before retracting with a very uneasy truce. Last week,

President Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned along with his entire board. But that won’t be enough to repair years of eroding structure and philosophy at the club where they are most specific and absolute, nor the departure of staple players and hoarding of average ones, all in the name of instant gratification.

Juve, meanwhile, have slipped away for very similar reasons. A coherent plan, which regained their position atop Serie A after the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, began to bear fruit under Antonio Conte and culminated in two Champions League final defeats in three years, in 2015 and 2017.

His departure, though, allowed for impatience to set in; the balanced, defensively-sound but ageing side was broken up. In its place came a team with no clear identity, overloaded in midfield with very little pace, led by Cristiano Ronaldo. It was believed he would be the missing piece in jigsaw for the prize they craved.

Where would Juve be without Ronaldo?

Maurizio Sarri, a coach who prefers working with younger, more energetic players able to put his intense and attacking philosophy into practice, was given the reigns. The Bianconeri wanted to be a more attractive side to watch, but it didn’t take an avid football mind to work out why it jarred; they won a ninth successive scudetto, but in the tightest race for 18 years.

He was sacked in August, and replaced by Andrea Pirlo, a cool, cultured midfielder in his playing days but a rookie as a coach. To sum up the chaotic feel to his appointment, he had only been drafted in to take charge of the U20s a week earlier. It hasn’t been an easy start for him, but that is to be expected in the circumstances. The dynasty has never looked so shaky.

Neither Barca nor Juve were playing in that game spurred on by a serious expectation of being able to win the Champions League. Their only hope is that elsewhere, not many of the usual suspects appear particularly capable either. Real Madrid look old and jaded; Zinedine Zidane is perhaps being shielded by a recent victory in the Clasico and empty stadiums funnelling the criticism onto social media, where reading it is optional. Qualification from their group is far from certain already.

Further afield, Paris Saint-Germain, last season’s beaten finalists, struggled to improve an already talented but top-heavy squad without their usual spending power, while Neymar remains as inconsistent as ever. Manchester City may have made their biggest strides yet in solving their defensive issues with the signing of Ruben Dias, but injuries to Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero have blunted Pep Guardiola’s side in attack.

After the 1-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday, he alluded to a possible “change in dynamic”, but there are questions about his nerve when it matters in the Champions League after an unorthodox tactical approach as City were beaten by Lyon three months ago, making it four years without as much as a semi final.

PSG lost the Champions League final versus Bayern

Liverpool have conceded more goals than anyone in the Premier League this season, despite sitting top, but even their seemingly once unbeatable squad has been hampered by the long-term loss of the one player they simply cannot afford to go without, Virgil van Dijk. Manchester United seem perpetually stuck in the deep hole they’ve been digging themselves ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired seven years ago, despite the odd result offering hope of a resurgence. There isn’t enough trust in Frank Lampard’s ability to back Chelsea, while anyone else in the Premier League seems too far gone.

This isn’t just about the Champions League; these teams all remain contenders because they are as bad as one another in some respects.

Bayern aren’t immune to problems, but they at least seem in a better place than their rivals. It is a long time since the top of European football has been this open for a negative reason; in some cases, dominance in their own country is no longer guaranteed. With that in mind, it makes the notion of a collaborative European Super League seem all the more embarrassing, and those who want it all the more ignorant and entitled.

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