One thing that can be said of Barcelona’s dispiriting start to their Champions League campaign is that at least their form is consistent. They lost Tuesday’s group stage opener 3-0 at home to Bayern Munich. The last three visitors to Camp Nou, in European competition, have all left with three-goal winning margins.
The last two were Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. The previous encounter with Bayern, meanwhile, was the epoch-defining 8-2 quarter-final loss of August 2020. If you wanted to be kind to Barcelona, you might suggest things are looking up.
“It is what it is,” said Gerard Pique, the player with the longest perspective on how far his club have fallen since the glory years, the three Champions League triumphs between 2009 and 2015. The phrase was later echoed by manager Ronald Koeman, whose points of comparison stretch back further, to when he scored the winning goal for Barcelona in a European Cup final, 30 seasons ago.
Patrolling the same touchline as Koeman on a warm, humid night in Catalonia was a manager 24 years his junior, 34-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, who pronounced himself delighted with “a victory that will stay in the memory”.
It was Nagelsmann’s first win in Europe as Bayern’s manager, but much about it was routine. There were goals from Bayern’s experienced strikers, Robert Lewandowski, who registered two opportunist second-half strikes, and Thomas Muller, whose first-half long-ranger was helped in by a deflection off Eric Garcia.
But the lingering impressions of a night when a crowd returned to a European fixture at Camp Nou for the first time in 18 months were of the youth of so many who took part.
Nagelsmann, headhunted by Bayern from RB Leipzig, has been rising for so long that it is possible to sometimes forget how startlingly quickly he has come into one of the biggest jobs in the sport. The Bayern manager is the same age as Lionel Messi, younger than Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Bayern manager made one very bold show of faith in youth, selecting Jamal Musiala in the starting line-up. Musiala is 18, made his first Bundesliga start for Bayern less than 12 months ago. By half-time of his first adventure in the broad spaces of Camp Nou, he had slipped away from Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets with an impudent turn and caused Pique to extend a long leg to block an effort at goal created by a burst of acceleration from the teenager.
It was a Musiala volley, thumping off the post, that invited Lewandowski, first to the rebound, to point the outcome firmly in Bayern’s favour early in the second period.
Musiala was certainly the game’s leading teen, ahead of several others. Pedri, 18, and part of both the senior Spain side who reached the semi-final at Euro 2020 and the country’s Olympic finalists last month, started for Barcelona. By the end of the night Koeman had introduced Gavi, 17, into midfield, Yusuf Demir, 18 into Barcelona’s attack and given a senior debut, coming on at left-back, to Alejandro Balde, 17.
After the various substitutions, the average age of the Barcelona side had dropped from over 27 to less than 23-and-a-half, both a strong endorsement of Koeman’s stated policy of pushing through young talent, and a necessary strategy given the club’s difficult transition.
When Barcelona lost by that six-goal margin to Bayern 13 months ago, they had Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Greizmann up front, and Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal among their midfield options; all are now elsewhere, most departed because the club’s debts have climbed so high that the salaries being paid to the veterans were unsustainable.
The crowd at Camp Nou enjoyed Gavi’s gumption against Bayern, and appreciated a spirited run from Balde. They applauded the rugged approach of the 22-year-old defender Ronald Araujo.
But the scoreline did not lie. Koeman was watching boys against men for the last half-hour. “There’s a big difference between our youngsters and the players Bayern have,” said Koeman. “In two or three years, those youngsters will be much stronger, and I cannot complain about their attitude. They have shown they have a real future. But right now, there’s a gap between us and Bayern. They are candidates to win the Champions League.”
Barcelona, in their current guise, are not. They have ground to recover in a group that also includes Benfica and Dynamo Kiev, though the prospect of reinforcements – such as new signing Sergio Aguero, another teenager in Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele – being available in the coming weeks is some solace.