Live to fight another day. That was likely what Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman was thinking around the hour mark on Tuesday when, 2-0 down at home and on the way to defeat against Bayern Munich, he hooked veterans Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto and did the football equivalent of a bedraggled basketball coach emptying his bench.
On came Gavi and Yusuf Demir, two guys who are a combined 35 years old, have played a total of 47 first-team minutes and probably would not be recognised by many Barca fans if they showed up at the front door to deliver a pizza.
Koeman went even further fewer than 15 minutes later, when he replaced Jordi Alba with Alejandro Balde, an 18-year-old making his debut for the club.
It’s not uncommon for managers to blood youngsters towards the end of a blowout win (bask in the glory) or a blowout defeat (fans tend not to boo kids). But the circumstances here were odd. Sure, Barca were being outplayed — they had not managed a shot on target — but the deficit was just two goals, one of them a craven deflection when Thomas Muller’s shot caromed off Eric Garcia’s backside.
A comeback was unlikely, but not unthinkable, and then there was the weight of history. Barcelona had not lost a Champions League home opener… ever. And no team that lost on Matchday 1 of the group stage has ever won the competition in the same season. But no matter; Koeman evidently is not superstitious.
Or, if he is, he knows the power of narrative. It’s not a coincidence that the three guys who came off are all Catalans and club legends — with some 1300 senior games between them — who spent time in Barcelona’s vaunted academy. And the three guys who replaced them are all kids born in the third millennium, tasked with keeping the club’s glorious history alive.
Corny? A little bit. But not untrue. Bringing players through La Masia has been, historically, Barcelona’s strength and will need to be so again. On this night it made no difference; the replacements had little impact and Robert Lewandowski subsequently added his second goal to put the seal on Bayern’s emphatic win.
Sure, if you were of a more cynical nature, you could just conclude that all this was Koeman’s way of saying: “What the heck am I supposed to do? A bunch of players are unavailable and I got nothing on the bench?”
And he would have had a point there. Among the established pros on his bench were a guy returning from injury (Sergino Dest), a guy who hasn’t played since last season (Riqui Puig), a guy who hadn’t played at all since 2020 (Philippe Coutinho) and a guy Barcelona tried to offload in the summer but couldn’t, because he earns so much (Samuel Umtiti).
This is Barcelona’s reality. Sure, it might change a little if Ansu Fati returns to full fitness and lives up to the hype (but, remember, he hasn’t played in 10 months and is still just 18; loading unrealistic expectations on a kid his age is both unfair and foolish) and if Ousmane Dembele comes back and avoid injury (he has never started more than 22 league games in his career).
But, beyond that, you’re grasping at straws if you think the cavalry is going to come out of the infirmary and turn the Blaugrana into contenders.
Who are we talking about? Sergio Aguero, who is 33 and was signed to be Lionel Messi’s sidekick when it looked like Barca might be able to afford to keep their legendary forward, hasn’t played since June, has missed the best part of the last two seasons and struggled when he did get on the pitch in that time? Martin Braithwaite? Great attitude, blue-collar hero, but if he’s the answer, you’re asking the wrong questions.
Koeman understands this. He gets the trauma of the past six weeks, the tearful farewell 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 who — despite not being irresistible, were streets ahead – it was no contest.
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 LaLiga. That would secure a return to the Champions League next season and, just as important, keep 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. Indeed, perhaps they would rather see kids like Gavi, Demir and Balde try to make the grade, than watch the heroes of yesteryear on the end of a home spanking.