Barcelona fear end of Champions League dream before kick off against Bayern Munich

A peculiar atmosphere awaits Camp Nou in the lead-up to what ought to be the glamour fixture on Wednesday’s Champions League menu.

By the time the line-ups are known for Barcelona against Bayern Munich, the home team’s prospects of progress in the competition may have dwindled beneath even the “minimal hope” Barca head coach Xavi is retaining.

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By the time his players greet the tens of thousands of loyalists in the stadium at kick-off, they could already have bid goodbye to Europe’s main club competition for the season, regardless of what they achieve against Bayern.

The scheduling of the two fixtures, Barca-Bayern in the later time slot, and Inter Milan versus Viktoria Plzen with the earlier start has potentially drained suspense from the decisive match day in Group C, where, with its three so-called superclubs pitched in together, there was always going to be one heavyweight casualty.

Speeding headlong into the casualty ward are Barca, who, having lost to Inter in San Siro and to Bayern in Munich, put themselves in real danger. When they then failed to hold a 1-0 lead over Inter at home two weeks ago, eventually scraping a 3-3 draw with the Italians, the odds on progressing were stacked against them.

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To join Bayern in the last 16, Barcelona depend on Inter dropping points against Plzen and again in the final match day against Bayern, while Barca at the same time make up a gap that currently stands at three points behind Inter.

Uefa, organisers of the Champions League, might have foreseen match day five in this group would be ripe with jeopardy and that the decisive matches in the so-called Group of Death would offer higher drama by being played simultaneously. After all, neither Barcelona nor Inter have immaculate recent records chasing European points under pressure.

Last year, Barca also slipped up in the group stage, having finished behind Bayern and Benfica, and were relegated to the Europa League. Inter, meanwhile, will be taking on not just Plzen but their own past phantoms.

Four years ago, they fluffed their lines on the last match day, requiring a victory at home against PSV Eindhoven to finish second in the group. PSV had nothing at stake in the game besides bonus fees. Inter could only draw 1-1.

Twelve months later, their last group match was against a Barcelona who already had the group won and fielded a weakened team. Inter needed only to match the result of Borussia Dortmund against Slavia Prague. Inter lost and were again eliminated.

They messed up for a third season on the trot in 2020/21. They needed to beat Shakhtar Donetsk on match day six to reach the knockouts and could only draw 0-0.

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At the weekend, Inter hardly looked like a side ready to exert command through this evening’s potentially nervous 90 minutes. A 2-0 lead was sacrificed in their wild Serie A meeting with Fiorentina, who equalised again after going 3-2 behind, Inter winning 4-3 only with a Henrikh Mkhitaryan goal five minutes into stoppage time.

Plzen, though, have yet to claim a point in the group, so Barcelona are relying on a dubious ally. Whatever the earlier result, Barca’s head coach Xavi insists he will not alter his line-up or tactical plan. “It is going to be intense, whatever has happened in Milan,” Xavi said of the confrontation with Bayern. “We need to match Bayern and show we are at the level of these top teams.”

There is an element of “revenge”, Xavi acknowledged. Barca’s decline over the past three years is framed by humiliations against Bayern: an 8-2 loss in the Champions League in 2020; a pair of 3-0 defeats last autumn; beaten 2-0 in Munich last month after they had taken the first half to Bayern but failed to convert a string of chances.

Barcelona, as Xavi is reminded daily, invested heavily in the summer to arm themselves with a squad designed to avoid last season’s group-stage elimination. For nobody do the failings of the European campaign hurt as much as for Robert Lewandowski.

He left Bayern, where he won a European Cup and eight Bundesliga titles, for Barca for €45m, to see out his mid-30s as the lodestar for a club urgently seeking to restore its status. Lewandowski has watched his former employers breeze to the Champions League knockouts, and his new ones flounder in Europe even as he racks up the goals in La Liga.

“He’s a winner, with huge quality and lots of goals,” said Xavi of the Pole. “This game is an opportunity for him, and for the team.”

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