Champions League

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For the first time in nearly 17 years, Barcelona will begin their Uefa Champions League campaign without their most famous and familiar name Lionel Messi. They host Bayern Munich at Camp Nou on Tuesday.

The Argentine had won four Champions league titles — he missed the 2005-06 final triumph due to injury — and was the go-to man in Barca’s scheme of things from the time Pep Guardiola took over the reins in 2008.

Messi’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain has given Barcelona rivals a real shot in the arm. It’s evident from the matches so far in the Spanish league that Barca have lost the fear factor. Teams like Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were much more courageous than they used to be when the famous No.10 was on the opposite side.

The very mention of Bayern Munich will bring horrible memories to millions of Barcelona. On August 14, 2020, Barcelona experienced a humiliating 2-8 drubbing at the hands of the German giants in a Champions League quarter-final clash and a distraught Messi sent a burofax to Barcelona wanting to leave the club. What didn’t materialise in the summer of 2020 happened a year later as Messi bid a teary goodbye to his favourite club.

Champions League 2021
Champions League 2021

“It was a shock given everything Leo did for Barca and for me,” Barca captain Sergio Busquets told a virtual news conference on Monday.

“We felt a number of sensations which were difficult to digest, but we have to try and move on. We’re only at the start of the season and we have to get used to playing without Leo. We are ambitious and confident of doing well.”

Busquets conceded to being badly affected by the humiliating defeat last year but stressed the team has made progress under coach Ronald Koeman.

“It was difficult to accept, but that’s how football is. Some time has passed and we’re bullish things are going to be different.”

Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann said Messi’s departure would give new players a chance to come out of the shadow. “It’s difficult to say if they’re stronger or weaker, but they’re different. They don’t have that extravagant style anymore without Messi, but they have players who can step out of his shadow,” Nagelsmann said.

On Monday, Barca announced that Martin Braithwaite is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines as the Danish forward will undergo a knee surgery.

That means Barca will be short on power upfront. Sergio Aguero won’t be there before mid-October and new No.10 Ansu Fati is still waiting to make his comeback. With Antoine Griezmann following Luis Suarez to the other side of Madrid, Barca pin hopes on Memphis Depay and Luuk de Jong.

Having last won the title in 2014-15, Barca’s dream of conquering Europe is likely to be prolonged. Busquets though has a different feeling.

“Not many people gave Chelsea a chance last season but they had the final laugh. We are ambitious and confident of doing well.”

Dwarfed by rivals

Founded in 1997, the young club based in the breakaway region’s administrative hub, Tiraspol, has been on a steady climb into the limelight.

It has won six straight Moldovan league titles and 19 out of the last 21.

At a training session last weekend at Sheriff Stadium – soon to host the likes of Karim Benzema and Lautaro Martinez – coach Yuriy Vernydub was still processing Champions League qualification.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect it,” the 55-year-old Ukrainian told AFP. “It’s a fairy tale”.

He acknowledged there were political overtones to the moment, but was upbeat about the opportunity it presented.

“People say sport isn’t politics,” the 55-year-old said. “Sport is politics.”

The games, he said optimistically, “will probably unite” fans Moldova and Transnistria.

Since 2009, the side has played four times in Europe’s second-tier competition, the Europa League, and twice been eliminated in the Champions League qualifying rounds.

This year though saw them earn a coveted Champions League slot and about 16 million euros ($19 million) in guaranteed prize money.

It’s a significant sum for a team whose entire squad is valued at just 12 million euros ($14 million) and is dwarfed by its Group D competitors.

By comparison, the specialist website Transfermarkt estimates that Real Madrid boasts a 780-million-euro team, Inter Milan’s totals 575 million and Shakhtar Donetsk’s 180 million.

At the weekend training, the team was looking ahead – even past their first Champions League game with Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday – to Real Madrid later this month.

Dribbling by Brazilian defender Cristiano da Silva Leite, Ghanaian midfielder Edmund Addo called out: “Benzema! Benzema!”

Memphis face of new era?

Dampened expectations could at least offer a more forgiving platform for Barca’s youngsters to thrive and others, like Memphis Depay and Ousmane Dembele, to step forward.

“Memphis can mark a new era at Barca,” said Koeman this week. “He has the things you need to be a success here: personality and character.”

If new blood was needed, Koeman has helped accelerate the transition as the likes of Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Sergino Dest and Ronald Araujo have risen in prominence, ready perhaps to lead themselves.

There have been departures too, 20 of them since the final whistle blew in Lisbon, not to mention the coach, with Quique Setien being swiftly replaced by Koeman. Five of those that played against Bayern in 2020 have gone.

It was the board Pique was targeting most and there has been wholesale change there as well, with Joan Laporta taking over as president and installing Mateu Alemany as the new director of football.

But Laporta’s first six months has been so consumed by keeping the club afloat, there have been precious few decisions aimed at taking it forward.

Last month, Laporta indicated the club’s total debts amounted to 1.35 billion euros, with player salaries 103% of income, a figure now closer to 80% after the transfer window. Saving, not improving, has been the priority.

Champions League
Champions League

The result is perhaps a club with better hopes for the future but a team that looks even worse than the one before and it would be a huge surprise if Barcelona troubled either the Champions League’s latter stages or primary contenders.

When Pique said they were “no longer able to compete in Europe” last year, there was anger in his voice but there is more of an acceptance now, an awareness that for now the pinnacle is almost certainly out of reach.

For Barcelona, the worst may be over but it could be a while before the good times return.

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