‘When Barcelona saw the breadth of their domain, they wept, for there were no more competitions to conquer’ : sycophantic journalists, everywhere.
Have you been practicing your cooing, wowing and fawning of late? If you haven’t then be quick, Barcelona are back in Champions League action this week and there’s a new law that requires you to act perpetually impressed by every one-yard pass they complete. Now don’t get us wrong here, BTLM is as much a fan of this wonderful team as the next football website; it’s just that we can’t get as enthusiastic about the processional nature of their European campaigns as we used to.
This is not Barcelona’s fault of course: they do their thing and it’s up to other teams to do their own thing better. Sometimes they can be beaten as Inter and Chelsea proved, but it does takes rare, once-in-a-generation performances of remarkable defiance to do it. So complete is the Catalans’ dominance of Europe’s premier club tournament that they’ll probably start setting themselves more and more outlandish challenges to keep things fresh. We can see a time when natural laws are defied and Barca achieve greater than 100% of ball possession in games.
Should this hold over the European game continue for many more seasons, a whole emergent generation of football fans will identify Barcelona only as some hybrid part-football, part-ninja, part-Matrix assemblage of superheroes. It wasn’t always this way of course; once upon a time their players walked the earth as mere mortals and were frequently abject at European football. So this post is a video collection, nay, celebration even of eleven of Barcelona’s most shambolic and humbling European evenings.
A 1-0 first leg win in West Germany against an out of form Köln side should set you up nicely for a comfortable passage into the next round of the UEFA Cup, right? Not for this Ladislao Kubala-led Barca team. With a new coach in place Köln overturned that first-leg deficit and then some with a thumping 4-0 win at Camp Nou. That new man on the Köln bench? – Rinus Michels, ex-trainer at Barcelona. Kubala was sacked the next day.
1984 was a proper annus horriblis for Barcelona with two major embarrassments on the European stage just six months apart. In March they faced an unremarkable Manchester United side in the Cup Winners’ Cup Quarter-Final. A 2-0 home win for César Luis Menotti’s side should have been enough to carry them through, but Barcelona’s mental fragility during the first half of that decade was infamous. It was perhaps no great surprise when they capitulated meekly to a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford in the return.
Six months later and the arrival of Terry Venables and Steve Archibald ushered in a new British era at the club. Their Cup Winners’ Cup campaign had a gentle-looking start with an opening round tie against the French minnows of Metz. Some Barcelona fans might have remembered an abject 3-0 defeat 11 years earlier against another French minnow, Nice, but concerns were allayed with a 4-2 first leg win in France.
Carrasco scored just after the half-hour in the return to extend the aggregate lead to 5-2, but this only precipitated the most calamitous European collapse in the club’s history. Metz scored twice in a minute to lead at half time then added another midway through the second half. The aggregate was level now with Barcelona still clinging to qualification having scored more away goals. They surely could recover their composure enough to hold on to their slender advantage? Roland Kurbos duly completed his hat trick with 3 minutes remaining to make it 4-1 on the night and put the French side through.
That Terry Venables team did go on to become Spanish champions and the following season they were pursuing the club’s first-ever European Cup. In the semi-finals they faced Swedish part-timers IFK Gothenburg and crashed to a 3-0 defeat in the first leg thanks to a double by the veteran striker Torbjörn Nilsson. The sting of this defeat was soothed when Barcelona won the return by the same score and subsequently won the tie on penalties.
Fast forward to early 1987 as Barcelona face Dundee United in the UEFA Cup Quarter-Finals. United won the opening leg by a single goal at Tannadice and then scored twice late in the return to give them a 2-1 win in Spain too. This was by no means a terrible Barca defeat compared with some of the howlers in this post, yet Barcelona’s terrible record against the Scots is worth a mention in this company. On the other occasion the clubs met in Europe, Dundee United also won home and away back in the 1966-67 Fairs Cup.
Just a few months earlier at Wembley Stadium, Barcelona had finally and belatedly won that first European Cup. This star-studded team with Koeman, Stoichkov, Guardiola et al started as favourites to retain the trophy the following season with only modest CSKA Moscow standing in the way of their progress to the group stages proper.
A comfortable 1-1 draw in Moscow suggested a processional return and the Catalans duly sauntered into a two-goal lead as half-time approached at the Nou Camp. A CSKA goal just before the break should have been a mere consolation but instead turned the game. The Russians equalised on 57 minutes and continued to take full advantage of their punch-drunk hosts with a winner four minutes later. It’s the only time in Champions League history that the holders didn’t play in the group stages.
For many people including myself, Milan’s 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League Final was the most masterful team display ever seen. As brilliantly as Milan performed, it still didn’t excuse how feeble Barca were on the night, especially considering they started as favourites beforehand. Barcelona had the most feared attacking tandem in the world with Romario and Stoichkov, while Milan had absent their main central defensive pairing of Baresi and Costacurta. The Barcelona strikers might as well have sat in the stands watching the game with the Italian central defenders, so marginal was their contribution.
Louis Van Gaal took charge at Barcelona in the 1997/98 season and while he would have some success domestically, European nights were often very fraught affairs. Never was this better demonstrated than the back-to-back champions League group games against a very fine Dynamo Kiev team fielding the much-feared Shevchenko and Rebrov partnership. Van Gaal’s team was torn apart 3-0 in the Ukraine and exactly a fortnight later, Kiev inflicted an even greater indignity on an utterly dishevelled Barcelona at the Nou Camp. This time it was an even more resounding 4-0 win and Shevchenko helped himself to a first-half hat-trick.
Two seasons later and Van Gaal had taken his side further in the competition this time round. Playing Valencia in the semi-finals caused some apprehension as their near neighbours had won both previous European ties between the clubs – including a 6-2 hammering of a Barcelona Select team in the Final of the 1962 Fairs Cup. That apprehension was justified as Hector Cuper’s thrilling side dismantled Barca 4-1 at the Mestella. It was a demonstration of the sort of flair, movement and improvisation that Van Gaal had failed to bring to Barcelona.
Our last and most recent Barcelona indignity also came at the hands of fellow Spaniards. Frank Rijkaard’s Ronaldinho inspired team were 2006 European champions and rightly lauded around the world for their fabulous football. That team didn’t really turn up to the Super Cup Final three months later and were well beaten, 3-0, by a canny Sevilla side.