Germany Soccer Champions League

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.

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United (L) shoots while Erik Pieters of Stoke City (R) attempts to block the shot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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  • Man Utd leads all-time 43W-34D-28L
  • Clubs even in last six (2-2-2)
  • Red Devils unbeaten in 16
  • Stoke winners of two-straight

After wins over Sunderland and Watford, Stoke City gets a higher class of opponent on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Fortunately for Stoke, it’s had some success against Manchester United in recent years.

Stoke and United drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Oct. 2, though Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils are flying now. United is hard to break down, and arguably deserved better than the 1-1 draw it earned versus Liverpool last weekend.

Stoke is now 11 points clear of the drop zone, and a win could raise its status to closer to the Top Five than Bottom Three. United, meanwhile, wants three points that would move it to precipice of the Top Four.

 

What they’re saying

Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan on facing United“There has been a wind of change there and the supporters seem a lot happier now and you get the sense that they are together as a group now. You only have to look at the players within the squad, and even the ones who are leaving, to see how much strength in depth they have there.”

Jose Mourinho praises newly-extended Antonio Valencia“I don’t think it is a reward, I don’t see it in this perspective. I just think he is the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football. It is just for us to keep the best. I don’t think it is a reward. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.”

Prediction

United gets it done, only barely. Stoke will put up a brave battle for boss Mark Hughes, but there are too many weapons to suppress. United, 1-0.

AFCON wrap: Results keep Group C undecided

Ivory Coast's Wilfried Bony controls the ball on his head during their training session at the Stade Akoakam, Oyem, Gabon, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match against Congo. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Like Group A, Group C in the Africa Cup of Nations has very little decided ahead of the final group stage match.

[ MORE: Guardiola “said goodbye to title” ]

Ivory Coast 2-2 DR Congo

A thrilling first half had DR Congo leading 1-0 and 2-1, with only Wilfried Bony netting for the Ivory Coast. Les Elephants grabbed a draw through Serey Die’s 67th minute goal.

DR Congo now leads the group and is primed to advance with a result against Togo or a Morocco loss or draw against Ivory Coast.

Morocco 3-1 Togo

Mathieu Dossevi gave Togo a surprise fifth minute lead lead, but Aziz Bouhaddouz kickstarted the Moroccan attack to plug the victors into Group C’s second spot ahead of a Jan. 24 showdown with Ivory Coast.

Saturday’s matches

Ghana vs. Mali — 11 a.m. ET
Egypt vs. Uganda — 2 p.m. ET

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Swansea City

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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  • Liverpool leads all-time 22W-8D-10L
  • Swans lost five-straight at Anfield
  • Reds unbeaten in 7 PL matches

One of the Premier League’s top attacks hosts the division’s leakiest defense, as Liverpool may be licking its chops ahead of a visit from struggling Swansea City on Saturday (Watch live at 7:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool has drawn at Sunderland and Manchester United in its last two Premier League outings, and sits seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

Swansea City has allowed multiple goals in five of six PL matches since beating Sunderland 3-0 on Dec. 10. It’s no surprise that they’ve lost those five (the sixth being a 2-1 win at struggling Crystal Palace).

What they’re saying

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on the match“We’re really looking forward to this game. I don’t know when it happened but in England every game now is like a final. Swansea are trying to survive. I don’t know when the title run-in will start, maybe now and we’re in the race. I hope for a special atmosphere tomorrow.”

Swansea City back Federico Fernandez on Liverpool“They are a team that is very strong going forward and that is shown by the number of goals they have scored. If you lose a little bit of focus against these teams then they have the players that will punish you every time. But it’s not only defending strongly when they are attacking, it is also how we keep hold of the ball and how we use it when in possession.”

Prediction

Swansea boss Paul Clement has his hands full, and is grabbing reinforcements in the transfer window (Luciano Narsingh, Martin Olsson, Tom Carroll). That won’t be enough to handle what Liverpool will dish out Saturday, as the Reds break free with a 3-0 win.

Saints’ Fonte moves to West Ham for $10 million

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West Ham has been linked with big name strikers since the summer, but the Irons’ big January transfer to date is a center back.

EURO champion and Southampton mainstay Jose Fonte is moving to London.

[ MORE: West Brom finally sells Berahino ]

Fonte, 33, makes an approximately $10 million move from the South Coast, where the Portuguese back will better Slaven Bilic‘s back line while forcing Southampton to find an answer alongside Virgil Van Dijk.

It’s been a strange trip to London for Fonte and Southampton, detailed by our own Joe Prince-Wright here. Fonte joined Saints during the 2009-10 season, and became a cult hero at St. Mary’s in helping the club move from League One to the Europa League in just over a half-decade.

Something won’t feel right about seeing Fonte in claret and blue, and Saints host West Ham on Feb. 4. Should be quite interesting.