Yesterday's Champions League lived up to it's name of being a competition where the best compete. Last season it was AS Roma, who stunned Barca at Stadio Olympico in the quater-final stage. Champions League has always been a stage where the underdog never goes without a fight. David and Goliath matches are a feature of this competition and yesterday, this year delivered on the promise. Real Madrid were knocked out of the competition by a young, talented Ajax squad. While it did come as a shock, considering the team from Amsterdam had to overturn a 1-2 deficit, the defeat was expected by some.
Real Madrid are clearly a lesser team than former seasons. They have suffered in La Liga and were knocked out by Barca in the Copa del Rey. Before the match against Ajax, they had played their eternal rivals twice at home, and lost both. So heading into this match, many would have thought that the Blancos would want to bounce back in style and seal their place in the quarterfinals. But instead, they looked disjointed and discouraged. They were without their talismanic captain Sergio Ramos, who took the controversial booking at the Amsterdam Arena during the first leg. Still, even with the heavyweights like Modric and Kroos, along with the future star Vinicius Junior, they couldn't find a way to protect their lead.
It is safe to say that Madrid are still reeling from the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo. He was their best player in the time he was in Madrid. He scored 50 plus goals in almost all seasons he played there. But it is not just the goals. A team with Ronaldo is much more dangerous than without.
Whether the Portuguese scores or not, whether he is at his best or not, seeing him in the opposition team would discourage any team. And while the defenders' attention will be to keep Ronaldo in check, others in the Madrid team could find space.
That fear factor has left Madrid. You see the present Madrid team, you don't see that fear in the opposition team. While the likes of Modric, Kroos, and Ramos are world class, they are not game changers. And the slump that Madrid are facing now should be a lesson for the eternal rivals too.
Lionel Messi has been the face of the Barca team ever since he took over from Ronaldinho. He has grown from a winger to a player who dictates the game for Barca. He can score goals and also create them. This season he is the top scorer for Barca. All is great, except for the fact that he will be 32 in a few months time. Ernesto Valverde has said he will rest Messi whenever he can, and he has. Yet the Argentine is Barca's most influential player. Just like Cristiano Ronaldo.
Barcelona should be wary of what will happen when the Little Magician leaves. There is no replacement for him lined up, or will there ever be one. The problem Madrid are doing is they are playing with the same system as they were when Ronaldo was in the team. The team cannot rely on Vinicius Junior or Bale to help them out when they are in trouble. Barca should also make sure they change post-Messi era.
Players like Coutinho and Dembele are the future for Barcelona. Coutinho especially has been called into question many times about his future at Barca. But in a team with Messi, it is hard for a player like Coutinho to be influential. At Liverpool, he was the main man. At Camp Nou, he is not. At least not at the moment. He showed his class against Inter Milan during the group stages, at a time when Messi was out of the team due to injury. It will be up to the manager when Messi retires to find a new system to involve Coutinho more.
Dembele is in a similar situation as Coutinho. While he has the starting berth for now over the Brazilian, he has only shown glimpses of his talent. His speed and direct running at defenses is his trademark and a welcome weapon to the Barca arsenal, which involves more link up play. It is in that area that Dembele still needs to improve. He misplaces too many passes during a game and that needs to be rectified. But with Messi in the team, Dembele's runs are also limited. Hopefully, we will see more those runs after Messi says his adieu.
Barcelona do have the players to carry the team forward after Messi. But to think it will be a smooth transition will be a big mistake. When an influential personality leaves a team, it has a lasting effect. Take Manchester United. It has taken so long for the Red Devils to really play the way they were known for after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
There is no doubt though that Madrid will bounce back next season. They would have already have their shopping list ready for the summer transfer window. They were dealt with the double blow of the departure of Ronaldo and Zidane. Santiago Solari will unfortunately not survive the summer after losing against Ajax. Many may call for more time, but Madrid are a team where success comes first and foremost. Barcelona should try to take a more cautious approach and give whoever is in the helm more time. Perhaps they will need a coach like Guardiola to lead them during the transition period.
For now, Barcelona and Camp Nou can enjoy the magic of Lionel Messi. Fans from all over the world come to the match day to get a glimpse of the Argentine. But all good things end, and Barcelona needs to be prepared for the worst when the time comes for them to part ways with Messi.