For Barcelona, suddenly, there is pressure. Tuesday’s 1–0 defeat by Inter Milan means that at the halfway stage of the Champions League group stage they are in third place in the group, three points behind Inter Milan and six behind Bayern Munich. If Xavi’s side do not beat Inter Milan at home next week, it is likely that they will exit the Champions League before the knockout stage for the second consecutive season.
Having sold so many assets, effectively mortgaging so much of the club’s future in the expectation of immediate success – beyond La Liga, where they are seven games into first place – this would be a serious blow. This has always been a difficult group, and these last two games, apart from Bayern and Inter, have been clearly difficult, by far the most difficult games Barca have faced this season, but in the way they have not just failed to win, they have failed to and the score, must be worrying – despite all the perfectly reasonable caveats that this is a very young team still in the process of mating.
And this isn’t even an in-form Inter team. After coming so close to defending their title last season, this has not been a good start to the campaign for Simone Inzaghi, whose side are ninth in Serie A, having already lost four games this season, including three of previous four. In part, this is a result of the muscle problems that kept Romelu Lukaku out at the end of August, preventing him from re-establishing his partnership with Lautaro Martínez. But there is also an issue of mentality: last weekend’s defeat by Roma was almost entirely the result of Inter losing their cool.
There had been talk of a loss of hunger and desire and there was pressure on Inzaghi, but on Tuesday, Inter defended with great composure. Barcelona had plenty of possession and passed the ball around in that familiar mesmerizing style, but lacked sharpness.
At the same time, Inter always threatened on the break. Hakan Calhanoglu had warned with a long-range effort that Marc-Andre ter Stegen overturned and Inter would likely have had a penalty but for offside in setting up another run, but the breakthrough came in first-half injury time, with Calhanoglu scores with a clever reverse shot just outside the area. It was a fine finish but Barca will be wondering how he was given so much space outside the box when there were defensive players in the area.
From Barcelona’s side, there must also be fears that a familiar problem is re-emerging. Since the 0-0 draw at Rayo Vallecano on the opening day of the season, Barcelona have scored 19 times in six consecutive league wins. There, the possession-heavy style can still overwhelm opponents, but against stronger opposition in Europe, Barcelona have found it rather more difficult.
Bayern’s failure to score could perhaps be written off as slightly odd: Barca were the better team for much of the match but failed to score and were canceled out by a quick-fire double just after half-time. If anything, Tuesday’s performance was more troubling. Away from Bayern, the issue was the failure to capitalize on opportunities. this was more about not creating them at all. Robert Lewandowski, who missed two golden chances in Munich, was barely involved – he had just 30 touches in the game and snapped his lifelong drought at San Siro – his only chance a half-chance as a ball dropped into the top of the box.
Of course, there is a risk of overreaction. Ousmane Dembélé hit the post, Pedri had a goal denied by an Ansu Fati handball in the build-up and there was a very reasonable penalty against Denzel Dumfries that was disallowed, but as the second half wore on, the intricate patterns fell away and Barcelona were all limited and more on Dembele’s crosses. After all the doubts surrounding his future with the club, the France international now looks a mainstay and has been a constant threat at both sides.
Overall, though, Barcelona ran out of ideas and, as they did so, became increasingly dreary, easy prey for some pretty basic Inter play. Xavi, quite unnecessarily, was booked for protesting the blocking of Pedri’s effort, the second time he tried to influence the referee as he consulted the VAR screen and his frustration seeped onto the pitch.
This Barcelona clearly has a lot of promise. It’s clearly a step up from last season’s team. Grows up. But two difficult Champions League away games in a row have produced a similar result. If they are really going to be a Barcelona team that approaches the levels of their recent past, this lack of attacking imagination against better teams is an obvious area for improvement.
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