Down and out in Barcelona, Barca’s Neymar. Photo: PA

THE FORTHCOMING clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona is just what Messi and co. didn’t need at this stage of the season. In the rarified atmosphere of the Bernabeu Stadium, La Liga leaders Real can rub salt in Barca’s wounds and complete a dismal week for the Catalans. A defeat, which will all but hand Real the title as their lead would be six points with a game in hand, will also add to the growing debate that Barca have reached the end of an era.

When football empires come to a close, they usually do so quickly. It often happens when a team ages, when a star man leaves (e.g. Johan Cruyff, Ajax 1973) or when a club loses the guiding hand of an influential figure (Sir Alex Ferguson, Bobby Robson). Just look at Manchester United’s situation to see how it can end abruptly – 2013 Premier Champions, 2014 seventh and out of the Champions League.

This is not going to happen to Barcelona, for a top three place in Spain is almost guaranteed, but the benchmark for Barca is Europe and this season, they have been found wanting.

For the past few seasons, Barca have enjoyed the outstanding talents of Messi, Neymar and Suarez. Contrary to what popular sentiment believes, Barca have not won the Champions League every season since man started kicking the old pig’s bladder around a farmer’s field. They’ve won three in the last 10, a figure that Real Madrid could achieve if they win the trophy this season. This current era has almost been as much about Real as it has Barca, certainly over the past five years, in which Real have won the UCL twice and have reached the last four in the other three campaigns. Barca have won it once, reached two semi-finals and have fallen in the last eight twice.

But we talk of the current era being very much Barca’s. The fact is, both clubs – as well as Bayern Munich – could be reaching a watershed in their recent history. Ronaldo v Messi does not have long to run now, although CR7 produced five goals in the two games with Bayern. There’s talk of both players moving on soon, which from a business perspective would make sense, and it will be a question of who will be missed the most. Real may be favourites for the Champions League this season, but this is not a vintage Blancos side. And with Barca about to transition – Luis Enrique has thrown the towel in, don’t forget – and Bayern shedding some experience, 2017-18 could be the start of a new era – especially if a team like Juventus or Monaco win the title this year.

European football has had a number of distinctive periods of dominance. It started with Real Madrid in the 1950s, evolved into the Milanese duo standing astride the game, progressed to Ajax and Bayern’s take on Total Football then we saw English clubs enjoy a spell at the top. The next period belonged to AC Milan in the late 1980s/early 1990s and since then Spain have dominated, with four victories in a 10-year period for Barca and two in the past three for Real.

Barca’s reign may have come to an end, but this is no crash and burn situation. Some clubs have fallen from grace quickly – Ajax in 1973-74 were beaten by CSKA Sofia, a team they would have beaten easily a few months earlier. They also dropped to third in the Eredivisie as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of Cruyff. Liverpool, who had won four European Cups in an eight-year period, lost at the Heysel Stadium in 1985 and life was never the same for them. Bayern Munich won three consecutive titles after Ajax but then had to wait until 2001 for their next one. Inter Milan, after squeezing the life out of European teams, went from 1965 to 2010. AC Milan had a gap of 20 years between 1969 and 1989. And remember, Real Madrid, after winning five consecutive titles and then another in 1966, didn’t win the Champions League again until 1998, when they won three in five years.

If Barca’s time has passed, it does not represent the fall of Rome or a Lehman Brothers-type affair (or the start of a Guttmann-style curse a la Benfica). They have the money, the power, the audience and the playing resources to rebuild quickly. They have to start preparing for life without some of their big names, though (the team that faced Juventus had an average age of 28), including Lionel Messi. How they handle that, as well as the succession of a new coach, will determine how seamless the next era for Barcelona will be. But, reports of their demise are certainly overstated.