More European pain for Barcelona despite improvements
Barcelona, Feb 23, 2023 (AFP) - This time it was supposed to be different, but Barcelona finished with the same sinking feeling at another of Europe's hallowed grounds.
The Catalan giants were dumped out of continental competition again, this time by Manchester United at Old Trafford on Thursday.
Xavi Hernandez's side fell to a 2-1 defeat (4-3 on aggregate), in the Europa League play-off round, despite their heavy summer investment and strong domestic form marking them out as one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
Barcelona won the Champions League in 2015 but the years since then have been deeply disappointing and, at times, humiliating, on the pitch and sometimes off it too.
Their defeat by Erik ten Hag's side was more the former than the latter - reserved for Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich scale thrashings - but it still stings for a Barca team hoping for far more.
After their early elimination from the Champions League, with Xavi blaming the strength of their group rivals, injuries to key players and refereeing decisions that didn't go their way, they had a second chance.
Winning the Spanish Super Cup in January whetted the appetite for more silverware, and although the Europa League was not their dream competition, it was still a big objective.
Robert Lewandowski, the club's marquee summer signing, sent Barcelona ahead with a penalty but Fred levelled at the start of the second half and substitute Antony netted the winner.
"It's a knock-out tie, it's Europe, they are decided by small details and in the end we didn't control them," Xavi told Movistar.
"It's a very big disappointment for us, and now we have to focus on the competitions that are left."
Xavi might have complained about the bad luck of having Pedri and Ousmane Dembele injured and Gavi suspended, but he knew this time no excuses would be accepted.
Defender Jules Kounde agreed with his coach that the elimination was a disappointment -- rather than a failure.
"I think disappointment (is the word), because we had a lot of hope. I don't think it's a failure, because we competed," said Kounde.
"They were two even games, we played against one of the strongest, in-form sides. I think it's a young squad still, we're still growing, I think we have improved. We will keep growing and improving."
Xavi has stated several times he needs to win trophies this season to stay in charge, after Barcelona bought Kounde, Raphinha and Lewandowski last summer, activating various financial "levers" to get the deals through.
By selling off future television rights, president Joan Laporta and his board were gambling that success would be immediate, to make the risk worthwhile.
Having conceded just seven goals in 22 La Liga games and opening up an eight-point lead on Madrid at the top of the table, there is no doubt Barcelona have improved.
However, in European football, their pain continues -- they have let in 16 goals in eight games, between the Champions League and Europa League.
"We have the feeling that we are much better than last season, it's clear that we gave our best," said Xavi.
"We played against Inter, Bayern and Manchester United, big opponents. In the end we didn't measure up to them.
"Next year we have to try it again, be more competitive and self-critical, which is important to show that we can compete in Europe too."
To rub salt into the wounds an old enemy, former Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, was there to clear Lewandowski's shot off the line in stoppage time and ensure United's victory.
Barcelona's next big game is against their bitter rivals Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg next Thursday, and once again they must pick themselves up off the canvas after another European knock-out blow.