February is merely half complete and Barcelona’s season already has just one final avenue to silverware left. The fact that’s the Europa League — Europe’s second-tier competition — encapsulates where the Catalan club are currently. Xavi Hernandez couldn’t even bring himself to speak about the Champions League in his pre-match media briefing on Wednesday.
Barcelona have actually been out of the Champions League since they lost their final group stage game in December. Overall they won twice and drew once in group E, scoring just two goals and conceding nine. That’s what sent them packing into the Europa League, the first time they have been in the secondary competition since 2004.
Xavi has tried to breathe new life into Barcelona since becoming manager in November; the former Barcelona captain has overseen a rise from ninth to fourth in La Liga in his first 100 days, but even that has only taken them to within 15 points of leaders Real Madrid. That’s on the pitch, off it he has had to deal with huge financial restraints with the club stating recently that €159 million has been cut from their wage bill due to the crisis caused by the previous board's reckless spending.
Knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Athletic Bilbao and losing in the semi finals of the Spanish Supercopa to Real Madrid means that Barcelona have little else to contend for. The campaign is only just past the halfway mark and, unusually, one of Spain’s ‘big two’ clubs are left kicking their feet somewhat as the season heats up.
Apart, of course, from this: the Europa League and a two-legged play-off with Napoli to start. Probably the hardest draw that Barcelona could have asked for means that Xavi and his players still have a lot to do to reach the last-16. “We were unlucky with the draw,” Xavi said. “Napoli are a Champions League-level side. It is going to be a difficult tie. I would not say we're favourites [for the competition or the tie].”
The emotion of the tie will also be palpable. There are few stadiums quite as atmospheric when at full capacity than the Camp Nou, which hosts the first leg on Thursday, and the Sao Paolo in Naples. The two sides met in the last-16 of the Champions League two years ago, with the Catalans progressing on that occasion, but since then a legend of both clubs, Diego Maradona, has passed away which has only strengthened the bond between them.
'This is an opportunity for us'
Channelling the spirit of Maradona will stand Barcelona in good stead in the quest to maintain their record of silverware — 2007/08 was the last season when they failed to win any trophy.
“The [Europa League] is an opportunity for us,” Xavi explained. “Our main aim is to get back in the Champions League next season and there are two ways to do that: finish in the top four in La Liga or win the Europa League.
“Of course we would like to be in the Champions League. It hurts that we're not there. Hearing the Champions League music on television [on Tuesday] made me angry. But we're in another competition. It is still a European competition. We're not talking about the third division. It is a chance to keep growing and everyone is motivated to win a trophy that the club have never won before.”
Claiming a trophy that they have never won before is a positive spin on what is a situation that Barcelona would rather not be in.