Barcelona's run to 12 straight Champions League quarter-finals
Seven managers and one GOAT have enabled Barcelona to produce record-breaking consistency in the Champions League.
Barcelona weren’t the story on the last occasion that they were knocked out of the Champions League before the quarter-final stage.
The then-defending champions’ elimination is remembered best for the actions of their opponents ahead of the 2007 last-16 tie.
On a team bonding trip to the Algarve ahead of the first leg at the Nou Camp, Liverpool forward Craig Bellamy attacked his team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club. Hardly ideal preparation.
The pair quickly put the incident behind them, though, both scoring – with Bellamy assisting Riise’s goal – in a 2-1 win that left Barca with too much to do at Anfield.
The bust-up stole the headlines, but that might not have been the case to such an extent had the significance of the tie to Barcelona been known.
The defeat is the last time that the club can be said to have fallen badly short of expectations in the competition.
Since 2007, Barca have embarked on a period of impressive consistency in Europe, progressing to the last eight in 12 consecutive seasons, with a 13th straight quarter-final appearance up for grabs against Napoli on Saturday.
Taking each season in isolation, this isn’t a surprise.
The Catalans are among the favourites to win the competition every year, usually receive a preferential draw as first seeds at the group stage, and have always had Lionel Messi on their side.
But it is unusual even for the biggest clubs on the planet not to have at least one sticky spell in such a long period.
Bayern Munich, for example, only competed in the European Cup once between 1991-1996. Real Madrid failed to reach a quarter-final in seven consecutive seasons between 2005-11, while Manchester United have only reached the last eight once since 2014.
The second-best run of consecutive quarter-finals stands at eight, Real Madrid between 2011-18.
Other than a bad defeat to Roma in 2018, the five-time champions have never slipped up against drastically inferior opposition.
All of the five teams that have beaten them at the semi-final stage since 2007 went on to win the competition, while three of their four conquerors at the quarter-final stage competed in the final.
They have never lost in the final themselves, winning all three of them by more than one goal and producing what is widely considered the greatest ever Champions League performance against Manchester United at Wembley in 2011.
But Barcelona are not immune to downturns.
While Pep Guardiola’s team between 2008-12 were arguably the greatest in football’s history, the club are now being punished for their complacency during those golden years.
The extraordinary standard of La Masia graduates that defined that team – Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Messi and others – was hardly likely to be repeated, but too little was done to prepare for their succession.
The slapdash recruitment in the last five years has stripped the team of its identity and left the club in a bad state financially. Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann have all arrived for over £100m since the summer of 2017 and none have fired.
With player recruitment so haphazard, it is little surprise that there is no consistency in the dugout, either.
Of the club’s seven managers since 2007, Guardiola and Luis Enrique were the two best coaches, but were also most successful because they were granted time with settled squads.
Gerardo Martino – the replacement for Tito Vilanova, who left after a year due to ill health – was dispensed with in 2014 after 12 months, while Ernesto Valverde struggled to maintain much control over an ever-changing set of players between 2017-20.
Rumours that Messi is in effect running the team have persisted during Quique Setien’s first seven months at the club.
As a result of the mess, it is no surprise that Barca have suffered several embarrassing Champions league exits since lifting the title in 2015.
They surrendered three-goal first-leg leads in the 2018 quarter-final against Roma and 2019 semi-final against Liverpool, and have failed to progress beyond the last eight in four of the last six years.
Messi is the reason that Barcelona have kept their heads above water since Guardiola’s departure in 2012, and it’s not even been the most remarkable spell of his career.
The great team of 2008-12 was about collective brilliance as much as individual, but it still wouldn’t have been possible with Messi’s influence.
The Argentinian was the Champions League’s top scorer in all of the four campaigns, of which Barcelona won the title in two, with a string of brutal performances in the knock-out stages haunting some of the biggest clubs in Europe to this day.
He destroyed Arsenal with four goals in the 2010 quarter-final, before knocking them out of the last 16 with another brace the following year.
He netted at least two braces in the knock-out stages of all of those four seasons, and scored in both of Barcelona’s finals in that era.
As the genius of that team has crumbled around him, Messi has broadly responded to the challenge.
Though he has fallen short on a few of Barcelona’s darkest nights – he was anonymous as Roma and Liverpool came back from three goals down to knock them out in consecutive years – this can be put down more to the standard of the team around him than his own shortcomings.
He has still scored an average of 8.7 goals per Champions League season since Guardiola left, hitting double figures three times. He has also netted 37.8% of Barca’s Champions League goals since Guardiola left, up from 35.5% in the four years beforehand.
A stunning brace against Bayern Munich in the 2015 semi-final and free-kick against Liverpool in the 2019 semi-final stand out as highlights, while he has seen Arsenal (2016), Chelsea (2018) and Manchester United (2019) out of the competition in the last five years.
Messi is the reason that Barcelona’s remarkable show of consistency has lasted so long.
While we can expect this sequence to continue as long as he remains at the club, whether they can sustain it once he’s gone is less obvious.
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