So, here’s an idea…maybe, just maybe, we could arrange it for them to play a bit more often?
Tuesday night’s meeting was the first time they had played at the Camp Nou since 2008, when a goalless draw was part of a two-legged United victory en route to the Champions League Final, which saw them defeat Chelsea in Moscow. If you need to be reminded how long ago that was, it was before Pep Guardiola took over as Barcelona manager, and a young defender called Gerard Pique was on the bench for United.
Since then there have, of course, been a couple of finals, both won by Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. But in terms of games at their own venues in front of passionate home crowds, this year’s meetings were the first for more than a decade.
That, if you stop to think about it, is just madness. And it is one of the reasons why a remodelled Champions League – call it a European Super League, if you like – could be (emphasis on ‘could’) far, far better than most fans seem to fear.
And yes, fear is the word. That simple phrase, European Super League, is guaranteed to strike anguish into hearts and provoke the ire of the majority of the continent’s fans, who appear to be terrified that evil and greedy moneymen are poised to steal the soul of their beautiful game.
To an extent, that concern is justified. If we all just rolled over and let the big clubs have what they want, some factions within that elite would be positively delighted to create a new closed league, with no promotion or relegation, and membership purely decided by economic might and marketing potential.
No real football fans want to see that.
However, that does not mean the current Champions League model is perfect and should be retained in its present state. There are far too many dead games, with the competition not really coming alive until the knockout stages in February, a full six months after the start of the European season.
In the group stages, most games are irrelevant because we know who is going through anyway, and even the occasional shocks end up counting for nothing other than one isolated night of joy for the underdog’s fans. Witness, for example, the respective victories gained this season over Liverpool and Real Madrid by Red Star Belgrade and CSKA Moscow, neither of whom qualified for the next round whereas the big clubs, inevitably, did.
Let’s be honest: teams like that do not belong in a tournament alongside the very best. They are simply not good enough to make it a fair or interesting competition – especially when their presence also means, as we have seen with the 11-year gap between Manchester United’s visits to Barcelona, the best teams rarely get the chance to actually play against each other.
So, what can be done? Well, rather than just sticking our heads in the sand and pretending the European Super League demands of the elite will simply go away, why don’t we accept reality and force them to compromise and negotiate?
That way, maybe we can have a new competition for the top teams which still requires qualification from domestic competitions, or incorporates relegation and promotion from the Europa League. What’s more, perhaps we could insist the giants share a decent proportion of their revenues with the lower parts of the football pyramid and grassroots initiatives.
We can also demand that ticket prices are kept low, and guarantee that at least one match every gamenight is shown on free to air television.
Doesn’t that sound appealing? Just because the worst case scenario of a European Super League would be unpalatable, that doesn’t mean there can’t be an acceptable middle ground.
Or, then again, maybe you’d prefer to just wait for the next game between Barcelona and Manchester United in 2030.
When a fee is attached to a name you can almost feel the thrumming of mental arithmetic in the air. ‘£50 million for a 29-year-old … which means he has 39.4 months of good football in him. Factor in the three previous injuries, divide by the amount of wrinkles on his face …. and you’ve got a rip-off’.
Truly, football is a workplace where thoroughly well-remunerated ageism is rampant.
Sympathy for slightly older, privileged young men may be rightfully in short supply – but these are the players who win titles. ‘Resale value’ has yet to win a game.
MOURINHO’S RAGE OVER AGE
Which is why it is easy, even allowing for his grumpy demeanour, to understand why Jose Mourinho is so frustrated by Manchester United’s tentative approach to the transfer market this summer.
Chief transfer negotiator Ed Woodward is reluctant to fork out £50m for either Ivan Perisic or Willian, both of whom are doomed to turn 30 very soon, given that he has already spent a hefty chunk on Nemanja Matic and Alexis Sanchez, two other players pushing their fourth decade.
As it turned out, the £40m paid for Matic – which caused many to wince at the time – is by any metric now considered a bargain. Sanchez’s first six months at Old Trafford did not pan out as smoothly as envisaged yet, even factoring in his wages, very few players of his ilk are ever available at such a cut-price – £25m – on the open market.
Woodward has also pussy-footed around Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld, also the grand old age of 29, when United are crying out for a leader in defence.
But that’s Mourinho’s priority, not Woodward’s, who is happy if an inconsistent Eric Bailly retains his value while he is busy finding United’s next official green tea partner.
According to official figures, United earned £581m in 2016/17 – without Champions League revenue. Mourinho should reasonably be granted everything he demands but, always gnawing at the back of Woodward’s mind, is potential profit on the balance books over trophies in the cabinet.
WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN YEARS
Of course, there are exciting teams in Europe who barely possess a veteran between them. Liverpool do not have a player aged 30 or older among their starting XI, though it should be said that they have not yet won a trophy under Jurgen Klopp, and are reportedly pursuing a 29-year-old Domagoj Vida to strengthen a defence that has long been their Achilles heel.
Manchester City boast some of the most intriguing young players in Europe yet are still anchored by Fernandinho, their chief creator David Silva is 32 and Vincent Kompany is a player’s player that the likes of a United do not possess.
The pattern only becomes clearer across Europe. Gerard Pique, at 31, remains emblematic of Barcelona’s defence. New arrival Clement Lenglet was bought in the hope, rather than the certainty, of replacing him while Colombia defender Yerry Mina’s youth seemingly won’t save him from the exit.
Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are among the 30-somethings. The lack of players to succeed them is a genuine concern but that is a problem with the pipeline at La Masia drying up, rather than the effectiveness of the current squad.
Real Madrid would not have won the Champions League three times in a row without Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo in a healthy autumn of their careers.
OLD LADY HAS THE RIGHT IDEA
The one club to have truly recognised the power of such ‘oldies’ is Juventus. They do not have the revenue stream of the Premier League, or even La Liga, but there is no prejudice in the pursuit of glory.
It is easy to say that Juve have staked their short-term future on a 33-year-old – a genetic freak of a 33-year-old – but Ronaldo is only one part of an experienced puzzle.
Under Max Allegri, the Old Lady featured the tenth-oldest starting XI in Champions League history back in 2016/17 in a 4-0 victory away to Dinamo Zagreb. Humbled only by a rampant Real in the final that year and the quarter-final last, the core remains intact.
Take what they’re worth in cash out of it. A 34-year-old Giorgio Chiellini is priceless. Blaise Matuidi was one of the star performers for France at the World Cup.
Mario Mandzukic is the hard-working attacker any squad needs, Claudio Marchisio, Juan Cuadrado and even Andrea Barzagli, at 37, experienced players to lean on.
Juve have got younger through the likes of Emre Can, Rodrigo Bentancur and Joao Cancelo recently but without dumping or marginalising their veterans.
Italians have always respected the value of years. So don’t be scared, Real Madrid, of replacing Ronaldo with a 31-year-old Edinson Cavani. Go for a 30-year-old Gonzalo Higuain, Chelsea, and be rewarded with goals.
There are no prizes in football awarded for economics. It’s time to respect the elders.
If everybody is really honest, none of us expected the Spanish giants to make a move for the 21 year-old winger, who was flying distinctly under the radar despite delivering two and a half seasons of impressive performances with Bordeaux.
When Roma made their move for the man, it raised few eyebrows in the global media scene and the deal would have gone through as a fairly routine summer deal. But then Barca decided to gazump the Italian club, whisk Malcom away and now – quick as a flash – he finds himself ready to line up with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho.
That deal had been touted for a couple of weeks and, although the fee looked very inflated for a player who will soon turn 30, it made a certain amount of sense: here was a seasoned performer on the highest of stages who had just returned from the World Cup Finals with Brazil.
Whether Barcelona needed him or were getting a good deal was debateable, but Willian did at least look like a Barca-calibre kind of player. Malcom, however, came as a bolt out of the blue.
Or did he? Did Barca really only jump into the deal after he had already agreed to join Roma? Or had they been tracking him for months? And were they really pursuing Willian with determination? Or was that just speculation fuelled by agents or the media?
In truth, nobody knows. Every transfer within every transfer window contains layers of intrigue which mean ‘the truth’ is always tough to decipher – even for those in the middle of everything, never mind those of us peering in from the outside.
The biggest transfer story this summer, for example, is Neymar’s off-on-off switch to Real Madrid. At the moment, that move doesn’t look like happening. But it wouldn’t take much for the deal to reignite, and right now even Neymar’s father (probably the most important figure in the player’s future) won’t know for sure whether it will or won’t.
This uncertainty and unpredictability might be a frustrating state of affairs, especially in the fast-moving modern world where we like to veer between dramatic extremes with little margin for anything in between.
“Come on!” we might rage. “What’s happening with Neymar? Either he’s moving to Real Madrid or he’s not!”
To answer, “Well, he might. But he might not,” appears to be entirely unsatisfactory, but it’s the truth. The transfer market is a complex and complicated environment, where nobody really has full control over anything (even Jorge Mendes) and every potential deal depends on a range of unconnected factors which could blow up or subside at any given moment.
This means that some ‘obvious’ deals never happen (Gareth Bale to Manchester United), whereas other apparently unlikely moves end up going through (Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus). Even the tightest of ‘done deals’ can unravel at the last minute, replaced instead by a sudden jolt which nobody had anticipated.
Similarly, it’s often very difficult to predict what will happen to signings when they join up with their new clubs, and that’s certainly the case for Malcom at Barcelona.
Does Ernesto Valverde intend to plug him straight into the first team, presumably on the right wing? Or is he intended to be a bench-warmer, competing with fellow youngster Ousmane Dembele for a place in the starting line-up?
We just don’t know, and at the moment neither does Valverde, because a range of factors will have their say including: which formation will Valverde employ, a continuation of his 4-4-2 or a return to the club’s traditional 4-3-3? Where does the coach see Coutinho fitting in, as a midfielder or a winger? Will new signing Arthur command a starting place, and what would that mean for Ivan Rakitic? Has Luis Suarez, now 31 years old, entered a decline? Is Dembele ready to contribute with more consistency? Where will Messi play? And, of course, how quickly will Malcom himself settle and adapt?
Before we can assess whether the young Brazilian will have a major impact at the Camp Nou, all those questions have to be answered. And at the moment, the only honest answer to all of them is that we don’t know. In most cases, even Valverde doesn’t know.
Of course, that shouldn’t stop us from speculating and debating – that’s part of the fun of football. And the more informed our speculations and debates are, the better. But we should always bear in mind that nobody has all the answers, and that anyone who claims otherwise is lying.