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.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80