European reality check for Barcelona
Barcelona suffered more misery in Europe as they were dumped out of the Europa League before the last 16 stage by Manchester United.
Xavi’s side faced a tough test up against an in-form United team but had progression in their own hands after going 1-0 up at Old Trafford thanks to a Robert Lewandowski penalty.
Yet the hosts came roaring back in the second half, inspired by Erik ten Hag’s changes, scoring twice to book their place in the draw for the last 16.
All of which means that it’s yet another poor night in Europe for Barcelona and continues their recent abysmal record on the continent.
1 - #Barcelona have just won one of their last 15 games in Europe against teams from the top 5 European leagues (D5 L9), as many defeats as in their 50 previous such games (W31 D10 L9). Fall. pic.twitter.com/6BCmCIBpYM— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 23, 2023
It’s worth pointing out that Barcelona were without some key players for the game and things may have been very different if Pedri, Gavi and Ousmane Dembele had been available.
However, the fact remains that Barcelona’s only wins in Europe this season have come against Viktoria Plzen which offers Xavi and his side a big reality check despite all the improvements this season.
Xavi outdone by Ten Hag
All eyes were on Xavi for this game to see if he could deliver Barcelona the big result in Europe that everyone at the club craved.
It was a tall order without Pedri, Gavi and Dembele and with Erik ten Hag enjoying life in his first season at Old Trafford.
Ten Hag looked to have got things all wrong in the first half with in-form striker Rashford barely involved, Wout Weghorst struggling and Barcelona taking control of the tie through Lewandowski’s penalty.
However, the Dutchman promptly changed things at half-time, swapping the ineffective Weghorst for Antony and saw his side equalise within minutes of the restart.
19 - Manchester United have had 19 goals scored by substitutes in all competitions this season, the most of any big five European league side in 2022-23. Depth. pic.twitter.com/Bc8DqEXQin— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 23, 2023
Antony went on to score the winner, while fellow sub Alejandro Garnacho also made an impact with his pace on the ball and direct running.
The changes forced Alejandro Balde, who had been superb in the first half, back and also put Bruno Fernandes back into the game after a grouchy and ineffective first half.
Xavi didn’t have too many options on his bench, due to injuries and suspensions, but had little answer to Manchester United’s second-half salvo as Ten Hag outshone his opposite number.
Raphinha goes missing
Raphinha has improved his end-product in recent weeks but went missing against Manchester United in a really frustrating showing from the Brazilian.
Barcelona invested heavily in Raphinha in the summer and he was needed for nights like these, particularly with Dembele out injured.
Yet Raphinha had a night to forget, his shooting was wayward, he struggled to link up with Lewandowski and Sergi Roberto and the only surprising thing was that he lasted until the 75th minute.
Raphinha’s performance came on a day when it was reported Barcelona had rejected a 70 million euro offer from Arsenal for the Brazilian in the January transfer window.
The forward has been heavily backed by Xavi this season, and clearly needs time to adapt, but you can’t help but think that if similar offers are around in the summer then Barcelona won’t say no a second time.
What’s going on with Lewandowski?
One of Barcelona’s problems against Manchester United was that they couldn’t match the hosts’ attacking verve and intensity.
Lewandowski was on target, just about, with a penalty that takes him to 25 goals from 30 games this season. It’s a brilliant record but there’s no doubt that something isn’t quite right with Barca’s striker.
He may have scored on his first ever visit to Old Trafford, and would have had a second but for Raphael Varane, but the Poland international isn’t his usual ruthless self and isn’t clicking with the rest of the team.
12 - Robert Lewandowski has scored 25 goals in 30 appearances across all competitions for Barcelona this season, the 12th successive campaign in which he's netted 25+ goals at club level. Marksman. pic.twitter.com/LOvGHfmbZX— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 23, 2023
Xavi said last weekend his team were the most attacking side in Europe along with Manchester City but it sure didn’t look like it. Lewandowski is lacking service from his team-mates and it showed again at Old Trafford.
The absence of Dembele seems to be being keenly felt by Lewandowski in particular. The Frenchman has established a good relationship on the pitch with the summer signing and Lewandowski hasn’t been as prolific without the winger on the pitch.
Busquets’s last European game?
Thursday’s game may well have been Sergio Busquets’s last in Europe for Barcelona if he decides not to continue at the club past the end of the season.
The midfielder shone in the first half before fizzling out, like the rest of his team, after the break as Manchester United came back to life.
Busquets has seen it all in Europe. He’s lifted the trophy three times but also been on the pitch for Barca’s recent awful defeats against Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich.
Thursday brought another defeat but Busquets said it’s different this time.
“They are different eliminations (this season),” he added. “In the Champions League we had no luck in the draw, then a lot of things happened in the games, it was incredible. We also have to say we were not at the level at certain moments, we have to be self critical,” he said.
“This was totally different, a two-legged legged tie, against one of the most in-form sides in Europe, doing well in the Premier League, with great players.”
Xavi has managed to turn his team into title challengers in the current campaign but clearly has work to do if Barcelona are to triumph in Europe again. The boss will try again next season but may do so with a new captain leading the charge.