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.
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.
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.