Trounced: Four-star Bayern Munich embarrass subdued Barcelona

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If you define the current era of Barcelona dominance as starting from the day Pep Guardiola took the reins from Frank Rijkaard in 2008, today’s loss in Munich is unquestionably the worst defeat of Barcelona’s modern era – an embarrassing drubbing that could mark the end of this squad’s golden days. No Guardiola team would have lost 4-0 in a Champions League semifinal.

But that’s exactly what happened today at the Allianz Arena, and if it wasn’t for a couple of stellar saves from Victor Valdes, it could have been worse. As is, goals from Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben and a brace from Thomas Muller marked a sea change, with Bayern Munich looking every bit as inimitable as Barcelona during their first days under Guardiola.

It was an indelible performance that leaves Barcelona walking zombies, set to play out 90 more minutes with little hope of advancing. If next week’s match at the Nou Camp is anywhere near as lopsided as this one, the second half will serve as a passing of the torch. Barcelona’s era may be over. Bayern’s may have begun.

[MORE: In their words: Reaction to Tuesday’s result.]

First two minutes told the tale

With a little beforehand knowledge about the two teams, you could have predicted this game’s course from the action’s first two minutes. Off the opening kickoff Barcelona held the ball for a minute without even threatening Bayern’s defensive third. When they finally turned it over, the Catalans found themselves on their heels, with Bayern quickly transitioning through their right side to create a chance for Arjen Robben. His point-blank shot was saved by Victor Valdes, a fine stop aided by the sharp angle Robben had at goal.

Barcelona would persist with their ball-hogging ways, holding 62 percent possession at halftime. Unfortunately, they had no shots on target. Bayern had four and had forced eight corner kicks (to Barcelona’s three), comfortably controlling the first 45 minutes.

At match’s end Barcelona had 63 percent of the possession but only two shots – attempts that came after they were trailing by multiple goals. Bayern forced five saves from Valdes.

Lack of size comes back to bite Barça

In hindsight, it’s easy to say that Barcelona would have trouble competing while giving up so many corner kicks, but it wasn’t a difficult prediction to make. Whereas their perpetual control of matches usually limits exposure of their small defense, they were always unlikely to have that kind of control in Munich. Barça had their typical possession advantage, but because most of their play was in the defensive and middle thirds, their turnovers were that much easier to turn into threats.

It was Bayern’s fifth corner in the 25th minute that led to their opening goal. A restart played near post by Franck Ribery deflected to the opposite flank where, after three more touches, it was put back across goal by Arjen Robben. Dante out-jumped Dani Alves, heading a ball back to Valdes’s left post, where Thomas Muller ran into the opener.

Early in the second half, another set piece doubled Bayern’s lead. This time is was Robben’s corner who met Muller who, rising above the defense, put the ball toward the middle of the six for Mario Gomez. An easy left-footed finish made it 2-0.

The goal that put the tie away?

Had Barcelona gotten out of Munich down two, they could have consoled themselves with memories of Milan – the quarterfinal opponent who failed to defend the 2-0 lead they took out of Italy. Barcelona turned that deficit around, making history while doing so, and if they’re going to advance to another round of this competition, they will have to make history again. Nobody’s even turned around a 3-0 to advance in Champions League, let alone a 4-0.

That Bayern’s final goals came from the run of play was only just considering a superiority that extended well beyond set pieces. In the 74th minute, that justice manifest through Robben who, receiving the ball on the right flank during a München counter, dibbled around Jordi Alba before slotting a ball far post while Valdes tried to close down his sharp angle.

It’s a goal that could very well prove the decisive blow. While Barcelona beat the Rossoneri 4-0 in their quarterfinal return leg, the Germans aren’t Milan. They’re much better. They aren’t an inconsistent team that put together (what we now see as) a one-off against European royalty. They’re a team whose win fits into a greater pattern of dominance.

Seven minutes later, Bayern completed their rout, with Muller putting home his second goal of the afternoon, deflecting a ball over Valdes from just inside the six-yard box. If there was any doubt Barça was done, Müller’s second quelled it.

[MORE: Highlights – Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona]

Where was Lionel Messi?

It’s difficult to remember the last time Lionel Messi had such little impact on a match. Perhaps that was Bayern’s play, though Barcelona did control possession. When healthy, we usually see Messi acquiesce and drop to join play when his team’s struggling to get him the ball. That he didn’t on Tuesday hints Messi was barely ready to go – far from his normal self.

Given how Bayern played, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a healthy Messi would have meaningfully changed the match. Perhaps Barcelona returns to the Nou Camp with a prayer if their focal point is at his best, but it’s not as if we saw a series of chances wasted by Pedro Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez, and David Villa. Barcelona just weren’t able to keep up, Messi or not.

In the end, his lack of impact may reinforce the idea that Barcelona’s era of dominance is over. Whereas the Guardiola era started with a team effort that meant Messi was only slightly more likely to score goals than the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, it may end while a neutered squad flails for a Plan B amid the restrictions of their icon.

That’s a monster that Guardiola created, but it’s unlikely to be the end he envisioned. Especially with Guardiola set to take over Bayern this summer.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday