With group stage matches of UEFA Champions League 2020-21 campaign coming to an end and the Round of 16 matches are revealed, all the eyes of football fans are currently on the knockouts and the remaining 16 teams in the tournament with a number of high voltage matches are about to be played in February and a few underdogs will be looking to challenge the favourites in every possible way for the rest of the knockouts. When it comes to the knockouts and talking about the favourites in European football, there are two teams that are always present in the list of most discussed teams all around the world, which are none other than the Spanish giants – Real Madrid and Barcelona. Despite Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle in Europe in recent years, They have dominated the European competition in the last decade, there are always high expectations from the fans of both the clubs all around the world. Not only their recent success but given their overall history in the competition as Real Madrid being the champion of the tournament for the most number of times with 13 titles and Barcelona being one of the most successful teams in the competition with 6 titles by their name, the fans always expect big from the players in the competition and the players put their heart and soul to fulfil their wishes. However, the last couple of seasons have been a disappointment for both the big clubs in Champions League as they have been unable to deliver according to the expectations and have failed miserably. As Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle continue in European football, one of the main reason behind the recent disappointments is the ongoing transition period in the dressing room of both clubs.
Spanish domination in Champions League: Golden run of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the last decade
Real Madrid has had a dream run in the tournament between 2013-2018 as they clinched the title 4 times in 5 years with a record of winning the title back to back 3 times – an achievement which has never been claimed by any other club since the renovation of the tournament. Barcelona, on the other hand, won the title 4 times between 2005-2015 while 2015 was also the second treble-winning campaign in the club’s history.
While Real Madrid was suffering from a Champions League trophy drought since their last victory in the tournament in 2002, They qualified for back to back semi-finals since 2011 but could never reach beyond that point until 2014. In 2014, the Los Blancos finally managed to get into the final and win the trophy by defeating their city rivals Atletico Madrid under manager Carlo Ancelotti. After Carlo’s exit and short spells from Rafa Benitez as Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane was brought in charge in the middle of a not-so-successful season in 2015-16. Although Zidane had some managerial experience while working at the youth system and as an assistant to Ancelotti, He had no senior team management experience prior to that. But after taking the charge in the middle of an ongoing mediocre season, Zidane did the impossible and brought the Champions League title. After that, the world witnessed a historical period of Real Madrid when they won the title two more times in the next two seasons with utter dominance. Zidane had one of the best-attacking lineups at his disposal during this time consisting of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale and a midfield with the likes of Modric, Kroos, Casemiro and Isco.
While Real Madrid had such a dominance in the tournament during the middle of the decade, Barcelona established a certain reputation from 2008 to earlier in the last decade under their famous manager Josep Guardiola and his Tiki-Taka style of football. Barcelona under Guardiola gained a reputation as a team who were almost undefeatable and were feared by all the big teams in Europe. In 2008-09, they won Champions League as well as their first treble in history and went on to win the sextuple in that year. After a gap of one year, Barcelona won the second Champions League under manager Guardiola in 2010-11. Both the times they defeated Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the final to clinch the trophy. With a midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Fabregas and attacking lineup of Messi, David Villa, Samuel Eto or Pedro, Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka managed to establish a superiority all over Europe. After Guardiola chapter was over, They won their next Champions League and had a second treble-winning campaign in 2014-15 under manager Luis Enrique with the infamous trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez running riots in opposition defence.
In last decade, the world witnessed a Spanish dominance in Champions League like never before with Real Madrid and Barcelona being champions six times in total, and also another Spanish club Atletico Madrid featuring in the final twice. However, in later years there has been a significant sign of the decline of these two clubs fading away a little bit which is disappointing and worrying at the same for the fans.
Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle in Europe: What is the reason behind the decline in Spanish domination?
After Real Madrid winning the title in 2018, They have displayed a very poor performance in the next two seasons as they got knocked out from round of 16 in both seasons. In 2019, Real Madrid was knocked out by Ajax in second leg of Round of 16, being defeated by 1-4 at the home ground despite having a first leg away victory over the Dutch club. In 2020, they were again defeated by Manchester City in both legs of round of 16 which was probably their poorest display in the competition in last 10 years. Real Madrid had a very consistent record of qualifying in the semi-final every year in the tournament since 2010 until 2019.
Barcelona on the other hand, have never reached in the final since their last victory in 2015. Their best performance since 2015 came in 2018-19 when they reached to the semi-final and faced Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Barcelona had a 3-0 lead in the first leg before travelling to Anfield to play the away match, where they were defeated by a 0-4 margin and got knocked out of the tournament. Although Barcelona had reached quarterfinals in the other seasons and their performance was not so poor, the ultimate shame arrived when Bayern Munich thrashed them by 8-2 in the quarter-final, which was Barcelona’s heaviest defeat in any competition since 1951.
If we look into the reason behind this recent failure, the prime cause that will be noticed is that both the clubs are going through a transition period. After Xavi, Iniesta and Neymar left, Barcelona’s only players from their golden generation in the current squad is Messi, Busquets, Pique and Alba who are all above 30 and are far from their best form. In addition to that, they have a lot of young players in their squad like Dembele, Puig, Fati or most recent additions like Araujo, Pedri or Trincao. Also, they have had an issue with their manager after Luis Enrique left the club, as no manager who has been appointed ever since had been looked good enough with their tactics and strategy to challenge for the European glory. After Enrique, Barcelona had appointed Ernesto Valverde in 2017 who managed the club for two and half seasons and won the title of La Liga twice during his tenure but hasn’t been able to challenge for the Champions League. After Valverde got sacked in the middle of 2019-20, the club appointed Quique Setien whose half-season spell at the club was even worse and got sacked at the end of the season. Barcelona had to bring in their former legend Ronald Koeman at the beginning of the current season to take the charge.
In the past few years, Barcelona couldn’t manage to construct a strong and settled squad who would be able to win the Champions League. After Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, the club made big-money signings like Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann but none of them has been able to fill the void of Neymar. Also, they bought some promising youngsters like Arthur, Malcolm and experienced players like Paulinho and Vidal, but eventually sold them. There have been too many changes in Barcelona’s starting XI over last three years and with a new manager coming in charge, the game plan, as well as strategies, have been changed which made it difficult for the newly arriving players to settle in a system. On top of that, Barcelona is going through a financial crisis which means the club can’t always sign the exact players they want, and the managers had to work with the limited choices they are given. Also, the ongoing internal disputes within the club after president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s resignation is another reason behind the unsettled condition in Barcelona’s dressing room this year.
While Barcelona has their issues with the unsettled squad, their rival Real Madrid is having lack of consistencies which caused their failure in Champions League in last two seasons. After their Champions League victory in 2018, their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo left the club and joined Juventus as well as their three times Champions League-winning manager Zinedine Zidane also resigned from his job. Real Madrid brought in Julen Lopetegui but his managerial period at Madrid didn’t go very well and he was sacked after five months being in charge. After that, the club appointed their former youth manager Santiago Solari for the job who was again sacked after six months as he couldn’t manage to qualify for Champions League quarter-finals and was defeated in Copa del Rey semi-final by Barcelona. Real Madrid had to bring back their successful manager Zidane just after eleven months of his resignation.
2018-19 was a very rough season for Real Madrid, as the club was not playing up to their marks at all, changed manager three times within a year and most importantly the club was missing Cristiano Ronaldo badly in front of goal. However, the next season Zidane worked to change that around and managed to win the title of La Liga but yet he couldn’t do better than the previous season when it came to Champions League and got knocked out again in the round of 16. Real Madrid also has a squad consisting a number of young and inexperienced players like Vinicius, Rodrygo, Fede Valverde, Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy and from their performance, It seemed they are not yet capable to handle the pressure of Champions League very well. On top of that, Real Madrid missed their captain Sergio Ramos in the second leg of the Round of 16 fixtures in both 2019 and 2020 which caused a problem in their defence. Also, their experienced defender Raphael Varane had a poor display against Manchester City in absence of Ramos which left the Madrid defence chasing shadows and the loss was inevitable.
Despite all that, Real Madrid has been missing Cristiano Ronaldo and his goals badly ever since he left, and they haven’t been able to find a suitable replacement. Their marque signing Eden Hazard has been in and out of the squad due to injuries and he has not performed as expected which is another problem for the club. And most importantly Real Madrid defence seemed to collapse completely in absence of Sergio Ramos as no one else could lead the defence like him, which caused them to face shameful loss both against Ajax in 2019 and Manchester City in 2020.
UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Will Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle stop or is it time for Atletico Madrid to go all the way?
After the Round of 16 Draw was completed, Real Madrid is scheduled to face Atalanta and Barcelona will be up against Paris Saint-Germain. Paris Saint-Germain, who were the runners up of the tournament last year is not an easy opponent at all for Barcelona given their squad strength consisting players like Neymar and Mbappe. Atalanta is also a very strong opponent for Real Madrid who reached quarter-final last season and was defeated by Paris Saint-Germain.
As both teams facing a strong opponent in the Round of 16, Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle in Europe could continue as their performance this season is also very inconsistent in La Liga which is the reason to worry. Barcelona is currently at 5th position in the La Liga table with 7 wins, 3 draws and 4 losses while Real Madrid is currently in the second position with 9 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses. Real Madrid also had a rough patch during their UCL group stage fixtures and was defeated by Shakhtar Donetsk twice and had to wait until the last day to qualify for the knockouts. Barcelona, on the other hand, made a very good performance in the group stages despite their poor form in La Liga, but they lost their last match to Juventus at home. If Barcelona and Real Madrid managing to get past the Round of 16, They will face even tougher opponents in the next round. It is safe to say that the stakes are not very much in favour for both of the Spanish giants in the knockout stage of UCL this season as well.
However, Other than the two big clubs, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are two other Spanish clubs who managed to qualify for the Champions League round of 16 this season. Sevilla was the champion of UEFA Europa League last season under Julen Lopetegui but their form in this season in La Liga doesn’t implicate many positives for them in Champions League. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, however, have what it takes to do some unexpected in the competition this season. Atletico Madrid has been very consistent this season so far, sitting on top of La Liga table with playing one match less than second positioned Real Madrid and they have lost only one match in Liga so far. Atletico Madrid will be facing Chelsea in Round of 16 and Diego Simeone’s squad has all the strength to put up a good fight.
Although Real Madrid and Barcelona are not favourites for the title on paper, when it comes to Champions League this two clubs can always do some miracles and the fans all over the world are expecting some unexpected to happen. It’s all to see whether Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle in Europe end in this season against all odds ?
What do you think about Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle in Europe? Will Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggle in Europe end? Let us know in the comment section below.