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Barcelona Has a Long Way to Go to Become Elite Again

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It says much for the state of the modern Barcelona that the question as it began its 2021-22 Champions League campaign was less whether it could win the title rather than how early it could go out without it being an embarrassment. Defeat to Bayern Munich in their group opener on Tuesday was largely anticipated, and so low are expectations these days that the fact the scoreline was “only” 3–0, the fact Barça was not utterly humiliated, will be seen by some as a positive.

Bayern Munich showed Barcelona exactly how dreary life will be without Lionel Messi on Tuesday when it dealt the Spanish team its first loss since the exit of the star forward.

Thomas Müller scored a goal and Robert Lewandowski added two more to help Bayern ease to a 3-0 victory at Camp Nou in their Champions League opener.

Müller’s 34th-minute strike took his career tally to seven goals against Barcelona, including the two he netted in the 8-2 shellacking Bayern dealt Barcelona the last time they met in August 2020.

Without Messi to rely on as it had for years, Barcelona was running scared from the start as it focused on protecting itself from another embarrassing defeat.

The final score hid the total dominance of the Bundesliga powerhouse. Julian Nagelsmann’s team turned the once great attacking juggernaut of Barcelona into a jittery bunch hunkered down in their own area.

The gulf between the sides was obvious. Bayern was at nowhere near its best, playing at half pace and with surprisingly little penetration. But it was utterly in control and after a couple of early flurries, Barcelona simply didn’t threaten. The hosts didn’t even must a shot on goal.

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Barcelona has been the most obvious victim of football’s new financial reality. Suddenly it is not too big to fail, the pandemic exposing the hopeless mismanagement that left it $1.4 billion in debt. The obvious consequence of that, from a playing point of view, was the departure of Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain this summer, but that really was just the latest manifestation of much greater problems with recruitment that have left the club still weirdly reliant on Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets (and for more than just their willingness to take pay cuts). Six of the starting XI on Tuesday played in the 8–2 quarterfinal defeat to Bayern the season before last, the match that marked a symbolic beginning of the end of an era, even if the roots stemmed from far before.

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