Despite the achievements made in league and domestic cup competitions, success in today's merciless environment is largely judged on European performance.
It used to be said that the Bundesliga’s appeal lay in the fact that if Bayern had a bad season there were about a dozen clubs who could conceivably win it. This year Bayern had a poor season and somehow won the double, beating RB Leipzig 3-0 on Saturday to add the cup to the league it had already wrapped up. Niko Kovac probably will stay on as manager and oversee the transition from an aging squad, but it is by no means certain. There are many who hold him responsible for the slightly limp Champions League exit to Liverpool and who think that the style of football has regressed. For the superclubs, winning is no longer enough.
Still, at least Bayern won. In Spain, Barcelona had the chance to win a second successive double under Ernesto Valverde but suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat to Valencia in the Cup final, a loss that may crystallize the reservations many have begun to express about the manager.
Before kick-off Barca fans held up a tifo reading “Tots units: som-hi”—“altogether, let’s go”—a variation on the opening to the Barca hymn, “Tots units: fem forca”—“altogether, we are strong.” Such calls for unity often seem largely ceremonial but here they are answering a real need. For there is little unity among Barca fans, a section of whom have turned on Valverde and, to a lesser extent, the midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
Never mind that Valverde inherited chaos as Neymar deserted the club for Paris Saint-Germain and was within one game of bringing successive doubles. What lingers in the consciousness are the Champions League capitulations against Roma last season and Liverpool this one. Barca has won eight La Liga titles in the past 11 years: they have come to be taken for granted. When the rest of the league—Real Madrid included recently—puts up so little fight, what glory is there in that?
This was only Valverde’s 12th loss as Barca manager. Two of those were his first two games in charge, in the Supercopa against Real Madrid, since then Valverde has won four and drawn two Clasicos. Two were dead rubbers after the league had already been won. Three were two-legged cup ties that Barca won anyway. But it is the nature of those defeats against Roma and Liverpool that cuts—and particularly the fact that both are probably best explained by how straightforward Barca find it in the league, by the way, they go into big European games unused to being challenged.
It’s not just that those defeats undermine the value Barca’s achievements domestically, it’s that Barca’s domestic achievements are in a sense a cause of those defeats. In such an environment, of course, managers end up being judged on European performance, even if, in practice given how the superclubs also tend to dominate the group, that often means one or two ties.
But the trend goes wider than that. Take poor Max Allegri, whose five seasons at Juventus brought five Scudetti, four Coppas Italia and two defeats in Champions League finals. In nine seasons as a manager, at Milan then Juve, Allegri has never finished lower than third in the league, never failed to reach at least the quarter-final of the cup, never failed to get out of the group stage of the Champions League. His record is extraordinary. Only Giovanni Trapattoni has won more than his six Serie A titles. And yet somehow that wasn’t enough for Juve, with whom he parted company with last week.
The criticism from outsiders has recently been that for Juve Serie A has become essentially meaningless. Here the club effectively admitted as much: he could hardly have done better in the league but he paid the price for a Champions League quarterfinal exit to Ajax. Having invested so much in Cristiano Ronaldo, Juve has doubled down on its gamble knowing the Portugal forward has perhaps two years left at something approaching his best.
For each of the top five leagues bar England, the Champions League has become the only measure. Unai Emery did the league and cup double in his last season in France, but was forced out because of failings in the Champions League, compounded by the toxic nature of his relationship with Neymar.
All of which plays into the wider disquiet expressed after Manchester City’s demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final last week. If the superclubs win these competitions with such ease, if those successes are so taken for granted that even winning five league titles out of five is inadequate, then is there really any point in still playing them? Or is Europe drifting inexorably toward a superleague, the very concept of which disgusts many, but which may end up being the least bad option?