Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

The Decline Of Barcelona and El Clásico

Posted on 26 October 2021 by Luke Collins

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It was the 85th minute and Barcelona were losing by a goal to nil against Real Madrid in El Clásico. They needed someone to get them back in the game.

Manager Ronald Koeman turned to his bench in search of answers. Enter Luuk De Jong, signed on loan this summer from Sevilla, sent on to replace wonderkid and fan favourite Gavi.

Jeers and whistles from the home fans started almost immediately, increasing in volume for the final five minutes.

Having watched their team struggle to break down Madrid, this was the answer? A player who was not even good enough for Newcastle?

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It has been quite a fall from grace for the Catalan club. Catastrophic management has resulted in them being over a billion Euros in debt, no longer challenging for major trophies, and without Lionel Messi for the first time in seventeen years.

The club is a shell of what it used to be.

Fans may dream of the days when a moment of magic from arguably the greatest player ever would spark them into life. Or when the tenacious Luis Suárez would provide a cutting edge.

To see De Jong come on to try and help salvage something from the game was a painful reminder to them of the reality they find themselves in. A slap in the face. A wake-up call.

Fans had to watch a team bereft of ideas and lacking in quality. Despite dominating possession for large quantities of the game, Barcelona struggled to do anything with the ball.

There was a glaring miss from Sergiño Dest in the first half. Gerard Piqué headed just wide from a corner as well.

But in the second half, Barcelona were met by a wall of white shirts every time they attacked. It was not until added time that they created a chance of real note.

This was not because Madrid were that much better than them either. For large parts of the game, they sat back and absorbed pressure.

David Alaba took his chance well in the first half, but Los Blancos could have extended their lead before the 93rd minute. Karim Benzema wasted a good opportunity, shooting straight at Marc-André Ter Stegen.

Both sides were guilty of being sloppy and were shadows of what they were ten, or even five, years ago.

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The lack of quality on display this year illustrates the predicament El Clásico currently finds itself in. Both teams have lost star power over the summer, and this year’s contest was as far from a classic as you could imagine.

The fixture felt less significant than ever before. Not just because of the loss of quality, but also the context going into the game. Although Real still find themselves in the fight for league titles, Barcelona find themselves battling in mid-table with little optimism for the near future.

Koeman talked before the game about how the match would demonstrate whether or not the team was heading in the right direction: an indicator of progress.

‘The Clásico is one of the most important games of the season and a chance to show that we are on the right path. The result is important, but it won’t be decisive because there is still a long way to go.

‘We have to play without fear. We’re confident. We know what we can do, and we want to show that. We are at home, we will have our fans behind us and I’m not going into the game with fear.’

The path they are on? A downward one. They went into the game eighth, they came out of the game ninth. Their rivals, by contrast, moved up from fourth to second.

And for all the talk about the fans being behind the team, there were jeers for large parts of the game. Particularly towards the end.

As Koeman left the ground, fans swamped his car to let him know how they felt about the state of their club and what they had just had to watch. Actions which Barcelona have condemned as, ‘violent and disdainful.’

After the game, Koeman said how the team kept trying. ‘I think the team worked really hard and tried everything till the end. And we just didn’t get the result we wanted.’

If that was everything that Barcelona had to give, then no wonder he is under so much pressure. For all Barcelona’s troubles off the pitch, they still have quality in the side. More than enough to be higher than ninth in the league.

For El Clásico to return to the heavyweight status that it once had, Barcelona need to improve. Some of the squad need to be moved on. Talent needs to be recruited.

But with the club losing €481 million in the last year, there are limits to the business it can do.

A policy of free transfers that characterised Barcelona’s business this summer is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. This is unlikely to bring any players of real quality to the Camp Nou.

As young stars like Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi gain more experience, then Barcelona will find themselves battling for positions further up the table.

The situation off the pitch may also begin to heal over time, and the club could start to recruit top players and become elite once again.

But for the moment, fans need to get used to seeing players like Luuk De Jong on a weekly basis.

Barcelona are the least special they have been for some time. And because of that, so too is El Clásico.