By Sam Marsden, Barcelona correspondent
Barcelona’s obsession with winning the Champions League is approaching the level of Real Madrid’s when their quest for La Decima, their 10th European Cup, dragged on for 12 years earlier in the millennium.
It’s only been three-and-a-bit-years since Barca last lifted the trophy in Berlin in 2015, their fourth since 2006 and the fifth in their history — their relationship with this cup is a relatively new one. Madrid are the only club that have won it since the Blaugrana. But that’s kind of the point.
“How do you explain one Champions League in five years with [Lionel] Messi in the side?” midfielder Philippe Coutinho was asked by a local journalist on Tuesday.
The question blatantly ignored the fact it’s actually only one in seven years (Bayern Munich won it 2013; Chelsea in 2012). That says it all. Barca’s shortcomings in the competition have been magnified by Madrid’s unprecedented three titles in a row — and four in five years.
That, plus the fact we have moved into a new era of football, where demands are higher than ever for Europe’s super clubs. Win just a domestic cup as coach of Barca, Madrid, Bayern or Paris Saint-Germain and the chances are you’re out of a job by the following December.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by the players, especially Messi, who has become the face of Barca’s early Champions League exits. Still hurting from last season’s quarterfinal elimination (the most painful yet, against Roma) and World Cup gloom with Argentina, he’s made conquering Europe his major aim this term.
“Last season was really good because we won the double but we all felt bad about how things went in the Champions League,” Messi said before the Joan Gamper Trophy match against Boca Juniors. “We promise that this season we will do all we can to bring that much-desired, beautiful trophy back to Camp Nou.”
It’s the one the fans want again, too. Incredibly, some weren’t happy with the league and cup combo last year because there was no treble and because of who won the Champions League. Despite unrivalled dominance in Spain (seven league titles in 10 years and four Copa del Reys in a row), Madrid’s European success cuts deep.
“It’s the thorn in our side,” is how both Messi and Luis Suarez have described it.
Uruguayan striker Suarez has also joked that Messi’s preseason pledge has put pressure on the players. Coach Ernesto Valverde welcomes Messi’s determination to go far in Europe this season, though.
“I like that there’s that extra motivation there, it’s ideal,” he said on the eve of Barca’s Champions League debut against PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday.
However, Gerard Pique has warned against forgetting about the other competitions. Madrid’s European success, last season, at least, if not the one before, came at the expense of the league and the cup. Out of the Copa del Rey by January, their La Liga campaign arguably fizzled out around the same time.
“To only try and win the Champions League would be suicide,” the defender said in August. “We’re stronger when we don’t let everything ride on a single match. If we concentrate on La Liga, it’s better, because it’s the measuring stick we use to see where we stand. Barca have never won the Champions League without winning La Liga, too. If we focus on La Liga, we’ll win the Champions League.”
Tiredness and a lack of rotation throughout the season were blamed, among other things, at the time. Suarez recently said he regrets playing 90 minutes in the league game against Leganes three days before that match at Stadio Olimpico. He’s prepared to rest more now. Elsewhere, four new signings have been brought in to provide the depth to, in theory, go deep in Europe.
As Coutinho said on Monday, the “greatness” of Barca means they’re obliged to fight for all three trophies every year. But they’ve played their cards this season. The Champions League is the one they want. It’s now an obsession. Another early exit will not be tolerated and Madrid winning it again is not something they even want to think about.