Barcelona's 2021 was the year from hell - things can't get any worse

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With the world still in the clutches of the coronavirus pandemic, few will remember 2021 fondly, but fewer still in Barcelona colours.

It goes down as one of the worst years in the club’s history, and not only because they watched their biggest legend tearfully depart to join rivals Paris Saint-Germain.

Lionel Messi leaving was the nadir, but just as humiliating was their Champions League group-phase elimination and entry into the Europa League.

It started with starlet Ansu Fati on the sidelines because of his knee injury sustained late in 2020, but nobody expected the problem to drag on and on, through various relapses, to the point where he was only able to appear eight times in the whole year across all competitions, not once completing a full match.

He is hoping to return in January 2022, and Barcelona desperately need him back. 

Ansu showed in his brief return that he can provide the killer instinct in front of goal the Catalans crave, with four goals in his eight games. It says a lot that one of the high points of Barcelona’s year was Ansu inheriting the No.10 shirt from Messi, a brief moment of light and hope amid the darkness.

Messi himself started the year in good form after a miserable first half of the season, where the Argentine was out of sorts after his transfer request was rejected by then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Barcelona entered 2021 without a president amid institutional chaos, under the interim reign of Carlos Tusquets, with Joan Laporta eventually elected in March.

Along with Messi’s superhuman performances, sadly behind closed doors, which in part helped him win his seventh Ballon d’Or, it gave the club some wind in their sails.

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However, they lost the Spanish Super Cup final in January against Athletic Club, with Messi seeing his first red card for the club, and they suffered in Europe too.

Barcelona were eliminated from the Champions League in the last 16 by PSG, with Messi missing a penalty in the second leg, but it was their heavy 4-1 home thrashing in February that did the damage.

Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick and to rub salt into the wound - the France striker is heavily linked to a Real Madrid switch next summer.

Any remaining good vibes were quashed in April, not only with the club's part in the botched European Super League launch, but also with another Clasico defeat by Real Madrid, 2-1 at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano.

Coach Ronald Koeman was ridiculed for his sulk after the game, storming out of a post-match interview while wielding an umbrella.

Despite the result, Barca were still in a good position with six games to go last season. The league was within their grasp; with 16 points from 18, they would be crowned champions. However, they fell apart against Granada at home, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat.

It was an inexplicable result and one from which Koeman never recovered. Laporta was fuming at the meekness of their surrender, with Atletico Madrid capitalising and going on to win La Liga, powered by Luis Suarez, whom Barcelona had allowed to move there for virtually nothing.

The president mulled over Koeman’s future in the summer, humiliatingly for the coach who was left hanging as Barcelona hunted for a replacement. They didn’t find one, and Koeman remained at the helm, unwilling to quit despite the shameful treatment, given the fat pay-off at stake if he was sacked.

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Worse was to come when a deal for Messi, which looked settled, was not enough to satisfy La Liga’s financial fair play rules and Barcelona informed the Argentine star that he had to leave.

Messi said goodbye in tears and headed for Paris, leaving the club in tatters behind him. Their biggest legend and possibly the best player in football history, gone, out of the back door.

Barcelona struggled to get their summer signings registered, needing heavyweights at the club - Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets - to take pay-cuts, and lost Antoine Griezmann on the final day of the window. 

They brought in Luuk de Jong on loan from Sevilla, which drew ire from their own fans and mirth from onlookers, at how the mighty had fallen. Just a few years earlier, Barcelona lined up with Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez together in attack.

Injury problems continued to plague the club, with Pedri, overworked by Barcelona last season and by Spain at the European Championship and Olympic Games, missed most of the second half of the year. Ousmane Dembele, hurt with France at the Euros, was also out and Koeman was left with few resources in attack.

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It was one of the reasons they suffered, but the 3-0 defeats in the Champions League by Bayern Munich and Benfica showed there were significant problems at both ends. Laporta dilly-dallied and continued to waste precious time on a coach he clearly did not trust, until Koeman was eventually sacked in late October.

The axe fell after a 1-0 defeat at Rayo Vallecano left the team ninth in La Liga, which followed another Clasico defeat, the third of Koeman’s reign in three games against Madrid, with some fans attacking the coach’s car after the game.

His replacement Xavi was unable to keep Barcelona in the Champions League, with the team scoring just two goals in the group phase, and they now start 2022 in the Europa League. 

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The bad news kept coming with Sergio Aguero forced to retire from football because of a heart problem, leaving a squad without many attacking options even more bereft.

Crisis after crisis leaves Barcelona exhausted and broken, happy to wave goodbye to 2021 and usher in the new year.

Ferran Torres’s arrival from Manchester City is at least a sign that things might improve; it’s hardly possible for them to get worse.