Barcelona will win LaLiga, that much is essentially a given at this point. But their Copa del Rey semi-final elimination by Real Madrid provided another reminder of just how unremarkable the Blaugrana have become.
Of course, every team – even the best – can be forgiven for the occasional off day. With the amount of matches played by the modern footballer, you can’t expect a team to be flawless all the time.
But even when Barca beat Madrid 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg, they were comfortably second best. They just got fortunate with an Eder Militao own goal.
That first leg was one of the least Barca-like performances you’re ever likely to see from the Blaugrana, yielding possession to an incredible degree. Had it come on Ronald Koeman or Ernesto Valverde’s watch, fans would have been screaming sacrilege.
In their own backyard for the return leg on Wednesday, they were even less impressive and ultimately blown away 4-0 by a Madrid side who played devastating direct football and clearly knew how to make the most of their strengths.
Given Barca’s setup in the first leg and the fact they didn’t – at first – need to chase goals, perhaps it wasn’t surprising to see them look less offensive than their visitors in the first half.
It could be argued the hosts did a decent job in their attempts to disrupt Madrid. Los Blancos looked a threat, but Barca got in their faces, Gavi in particular.
But when Madrid had the opportunity to get into full stride, they looked so much deadlier than Barca and were deserving of the lead on the stroke of half-time.
Rodrygo brilliantly started a counter from his own box, evading a cynical block from Marcos Alonso to release Vinicius Junior. He picked out the pass to Karim Benzema at the perfect moment and then received it back, his subsequent shot hitting Jules Kounde and just about crossing the line before his strike partner could prod it over.
Benzema didn’t have to wait much longer to legitimately get his name on the scoresheet, though.
It was 2-0 just four minutes into the second period, Benzema dispatching a clinical first-time finish from the edge of the box after tremendous work from Luka Modric cutting in off the right wing.
Suddenly, Madrid were ahead on aggregate. Barca finally needed to come out of their shell. Xavi needed to find answers.
He didn’t have them.
Another eight minutes passed and the deficit increased again. Vinicius was the one doing the damage, his unpredictability luring Franck Kessie into a clumsy challenge in the box to concede a penalty that Benzema obviously converted.
Finally, Xavi looked to alter things. Ansu Fati arrived first; Ferran Torres and Eric Garcia followed soon after.
The problem by this point of course was Barca’s increased desperation and Madrid’s ability on the break.
Case in point: goal number four.
For the umpteenth time, Vinicius tore forward with Barca’s backline stretched. A clever bit of skill to deceive Kounde on the edge of the box allowed the Brazilian to sneak the ball through to Benzema, whose finish was effortlessly cool as it just flicked up out of the reach of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s right leg.
The Frenchman hasn’t had the best of seasons, struggling with injury and consistency throughout the campaign. But these past few days suggest he’s well and truly back, his third goal on Wednesday bringing up a second hat-trick in successive matches after leading the weekend demolition of Real Valladolid.
Barca will in all likelihood be able to console themselves with LaLiga success, which at the end of the day was their chief aim this term. And we shouldn’t forget they beat Madrid to effectively wrap up the league a little over two weeks ago.
However, it’s difficult to identify what Xavi’s Barca are actually good at. Even taking into account their first-leg win over Madrid, they were poor in this tie. They were dumped out at the Champions League group stage and then quite comprehensively dealt with in the Europa League by a Manchester United side that went on to lose 7-0 to Liverpool a week and a half later.
They’re no longer that team you can guarantee to pass even the best opponents to death, while on Wednesday there was a distinct lack of personality on display from those in attack – and that includes Robert Lewandowski, whose 2023 form gets more concerning by the match.
Sure, LaLiga is theirs to bottle, but arguably just as important – maybe even more – as success to Barcelona is their ethos.
“Mes que un club,” as the saying goes. Well, Barcelona are losing their soul, merely becoming just another club.
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sMALL LOCAL CLUB THIS bARCA! MU owns them! Bayern owns them and Madrid owns them….