On Tuesday night, following their 4-0 Parc des Princes hammering at the hands of Paris St Germain, my colleague Michael Yokhin tweeted: “This is Barcelona’s most important and resounding defeat since Milan in 1994.” He was referring to the 1993-94 Champions League final, when Johan Cruyff’s heavily favored “Dream Team” fell at the hands of Fabio Capello’s depleted Milan side.
For those who don’t remember, here’s a bit of context.
Cruyff’s Barca had won four straight La Liga titles and the 1991-92 Champions League. They captured the imagination with a star-studded lineup that included the likes of Ronald Koeman, Pep Guardiola, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario. But that game in Athens proved to be a turning point, perhaps achieving an out-sized importance because of the big stage. Marcel Desailly, a central defender deployed in midfield, disrupted Barca’s schemes, starving the front men of their supply and physically dominating the likes of Guardiola and Jose Maria Bakero.
There was an obvious symbolism there. In the popular narrative where Cruyff had a creator in front of the back four, Capello had a destroyer. (It’s a bit of a simplistic reading because his 4-4-2 also featured a classic deep playmaker like Demetrio Albertini, but then football’s historic narratives often work best when they’re dumbed down.)
After the game, Cruyff was no longer unassailable. Barcelona’s next campaign was marked by simmering rows between Cruyff and club president Josep Nunez. Koeman, Stoichkov, Romario, Txitki Begiristain and Andoni Zubizarreta, five of the XI who had started against Milan, were all gone within 12 months. Cruyff stuck around another year, until the summer of 1996.
Obviously, his legacy lived on and in fact, it would manifest itself down the road in the changes he brought to the La Masia academy and the emergence of the Guardiola era. But there is little question that the 4-0 in Athens would prove to be a major turning point.
(At this stage, some may argue that another famous 4-0, the thumping at the hands of Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern in the 2012-13 Champions League semifinal, was equally important. I don’t think so. Barca were 13 points clear at the top of La Liga at the time. The defeat did not lead to a clear-out or a significant change in direction or a decline.)
So was Tuesday night some seminal turning point like the one in Athens 23 years ago? The arguments for a resounding “yes” are all there.
You have to go back a decade to find the last time Barcelona exited the Champions League this early. And you probably have to go back to the Bayern game in 2013 for the last time Barcelona were this poor in a game of this magnitude.
The sight of Barcelona’s long-time stalwarts — from Andres Iniesta to Sergio Busquets, from Gerard Pique to, yes, Lionel Messi — struggling against this version of Paris Saint-Germain is psychologically damning as well. It debunks the notion that this season’s ho-hum performances were simply down to Iniesta’s injuries or that whatever defensive issues the club may have could be instantly solved the moment Gerard Pique puts his game face on.
There’s a danger in reading too much into post-match, heat-of-the-moment comments, but when Busquets says he expected PSG to play differently and Luis Enrique then says “PSG played as we expected and played at their best and we did not,” it inevitably fuels the manager vs. dressing room narrative.
With a warm and fuzzy “players’ manager” at the helm or a guru already on his way to footballing canonization, these issues wouldn’t be a big deal. With a guy like Luis Enrique who is neither, it can become a problem, especially since the other thing Luis Enrique is not is a guy who sucks up to the powerful and the media to curry favor.
A former Roma executive who remains a huge admirer of Luis Enrique told me: “He lives life on his own, just as he’s on his own when he runs his marathons. He looks everybody in the eye and never owes anybody anything.”
Guys like that can become uncomfortable very quickly. Indeed, in some ways he had already made a rod for his own back this season by opting to rotate his squad so heavily and limit his starters’ playing time. It was a calculated risk following the perception (real or otherwise) that what stopped Barcelona from winning back-to-back trebles was arriving at the quarterfinal clash with Atletico Madrid last year fatigued and battle-weary.
This season, with a much deeper squad, he has parceled out playing time more carefully. And while Barca paid the price with some poor performances, especially in La Liga — you can’t conjure up chemistry from one game to the next — he had hoped it would pay dividends in April and May. Of course, the cruel irony is that they probably will not get that far and it’s going to be dumped squarely on the manager.
Bubbling in the background is the elephant in the room, the fact that until he signs a new contract, Lionel Messi becomes a free agent in just over 15 months’ time. Even if he extends (and you expect that he will), at some point Barcelona will have to navigate the succession from Messi to, most likely, Neymar. Odds are it won’t go as smoothly as the passing of the baton from Ronaldinho to Messi a decade ago.
The overarching question is whether the club want Luis Enrique to be part of that dynamic or not and, indeed, how Messi feels about committing with Luis Enrique at the helm compared to another manager.
All that said, there are three-and-a-half months of football to be played this season, a span in which Luis Enrique and Barcelona can write their own script and help determine whether the Valentine’s Day debacle was simply a painful road bump (like Bayern’s in 2013) or a major turn in the road, the kind that forces you to kick some guys off the bus.
It’s also three-and-a-half months in which Pique (who turned 30 earlier this month) can prove that he can continue contributing well into his mid-30s like his old defensive partner, Carles Puyol, did. Iniesta can prove that his “Pale Rider” act is still box office, perhaps reinvented deeper on the pitch, a bit like Andrea Pirlo. Busquets can show he’s still the gold standard for a certain kind of two-way midfielder. And Messi? Well, he has a decision to make, above all else: whether he’s willing to commit and on what terms.
In 60-plus years of European knockout competition, nobody has ever overturned an 0-4 first-leg deficit so this ship may have sailed, but that doesn’t mean a convincing spanking at the Camp Nou wouldn’t do wonders for morale. There’s a Copa del Rey to be won and despite Real Madrid’s two games in hand, La Liga isn’t lost yet either. Even if they don’t win a third straight Spanish title, convincing performances domestically — like in the Clasico still to be played at the Bernabeu — can do plenty to restore confidence.
In other words, this script has not yet been written. It’s up to Luis Enrique and his players to decide whether this really was a re-run of the Athenian tragedy that caused the downfall of the Cruyff Era or whether this squad requires a reload, rather than a reboot, come June.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.