Could the Champions League offer Barcelona some salvation?
It's now five years since Barcelona last won the Champions League, their 3:1 victory over Juventus in Berlin's Olympiastadion rounding off a fantastic season for the Blaugrana that saw them do the treble of Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Five long years later, and a lot has happened at the Nou Camp, and not a lot of it for the better. Whilst that winning 2015 squad and team felt extremely settled (most fans could list the likely starting XI almost immediately, as it continued to pick itself, game after game), recent years has seen the team (and the management) chopped and changed time after time as the club seeks to find a winning formula once again. The latest Champions League betting advice would also tend to back this up, suggesting that Barcelona have slipped down the rankings compared to the last few seasons. So, whilst previously they have always been favourites to land Europe's top prize, this season sees them behind holders Bayern Munich, Premier League giants Liverpool and Man City, last season's other finalists PSG, and perennial under-achievers Juventus.
Given the horrendous summer that Barcelona's fans had to endure, firstly losing La Liga to bitter rivals Real Madrid, followed closely by something even worse - the shock news that after nineteen years with the club, Lionel Messi suddenly wanted out of it, it’s not hard to see that fan confidence going into the new season was about as low as it could possibly be.
Even the appointment of yet another new manager, this time a former player from the “dream team” era, Ronald Koeman, didn’t do much to quell the fans fears, especially when rumours abounded that Koeman told Messi that his privileges in the Barcelona squad were over. It certainly didn't sound like a very happy Nou Camp.
The fans fears were confirmed after a tricky start to the domestic season saw them languishing in mid table. With bad results doing nothing to lift a mood already blighted by low confidence, the Champions League draw suddenly looked like a potential banana skin, as Barca were drawn in Group G, alongside fellow European giants Juventus, as well as potentially tricky trips into Eastern Europe against Dynamo Kiev and Ferencvárosi.
As Barca fans contemplated the unthinkable - not even getting through the first Champions League group stages, the team thrashed Ferencvárosi 5:1 in their opening group match, their 37th unbeaten Champions League game at the Nou Camp. A week later they were even better, surprising everyone by going to Turin and pulling off a surprise 2:0 victory against Juventus. And despite the poor form continuing in the domestic league, they made it three wins out of three in Europe with a 2:1 victory over Dynamo Kiev.
So, whilst in previous seasons when Barcelona have been flying in La Liga, expectations in Europe have been understandably high and the pressure has been on the team to carry their form into Europe, maybe this year will be the opposite. Recent seasons has seen them fall near the final hurdle and their football hasn’t reached the free flowing standards of 2015, when Messi, Suarez and Neymar, backed up by Iniesta, wreaked havoc on defences across Europe. So whilst the current team continue to struggle in LaLiga, maybe the lesser expectations will work to their advantage this year, and whilst a club the size of Barcelona will never really go under the radar, they might see the Champions League as an unexpected chance to salvage something . Anc maybe, just maybe, if Messi was to achieve success in Europe's top competition, then could it lead to the possibility of him staying with the club that he's graced since joining as a thirteen year old back in 2001. Let's hope so.