By Paul Gardner
We are being asked to believe, it seems to me, that the whole Barcelona episode was an illusion, something not real. It was sleight of hand, or foot, that for the past few years has mesmerized its opponents into helpless servility.
Now, at last, the myth has been exploded. The ruling Barca emperors have been exposed as naked. All it took was the refusal by the stubborn Germans -- who else? -- to be intimidated, and all the finery and glamour in which Barca had been dressed, all the praise that had been heaped on them, was suddenly seen as worthless.
With the myth shattered, we can now get back to playing soccer the way it’s supposed to be. Enough of this ticky-tacky possession stuff, that was brutally swept aside by Bayern Munich. The stats said Barcelona 63%, Bayern Munich 37%. The scoreboard said Bayern 4 Barcelona 0.
One can argue with that scoreline -- two of the goals should certainly have been disallowed -- but that is mere nitpicking. On this night Barca were taken apart by a much livelier, much quicker, simply much better Bayern team.
And so those -- and there are plenty of them in this sport -- who have never warmed to the Barca style, can crow. Because the other factor, that I did not mention, was that Bayern also played a much more robust game than Barcelona. I hesitate to use the word “physical,” which always implies rough play and aggressive fouling. Bayern did out-foul Barca, 16-10, but this was not a victory for physical play. Bayern’s soccer was of a very high order, skillful, accurate, and relentlessly fast-paced.
But does it mark the end of the Barca era? Or the Barca myth? A few short weeks back we were looking at this very same Champions League and theorizing about the demise of the English teams, not one of which had made it into the quarterfinals. The Italians weren’t looking too good either, with only a frail Juventus advancing.
Eras do, obviously, come and go. It needs to be noticed that there have been very few occasions in soccer’s international history when one team -- either club or national -- has been top dog for every long. The Hungarians in the early 1950s, Real Madrid of the late 1950s, maybe the Brazilians from 1958 to 1970 (the last team to win consecutive World Cups). And not much since then.
Manchester United can rule the roost in England, Barcelona in Spain, Juventus in Italy -- but at the international level things are much more difficult.
Barcelona certainly looked like a tired team against Bayern. They had plenty of excuses - the absence of experienced defenders Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, for a start. But their biggest problem was the presence, the phantom presence, of Lionel Messi and Xavi. Both were on the field, true, but neither was ever in the game.
Which left Andres Iniesta to do all the clever midfield stuff on his own -- which, of course, is impossible. That midfield stuff is nothing if not rapid-fire inter-passing -- and where were the partners for Iniesta to swap passes with? Not just any old passes, but the wondrous, telling, probing, defense-shredding passes.
Xavi was disastrously below his usual form. But what of Messi? Coming off an injury -- well, we knew that. And we could assume that he was fit and raring to go -- otherwise, why play him? The assumption was wrong. Messi clearly was not ready. One can only assume that he was on the field in the hope that his mere presence would intimidate, or at least greatly worry, the Bayern players. And because his inspirational presence would help Barca.
Intimidate Bayern? In the Allianz Arena? Fat chance. Anyway, how long does it take for confident defenders to realize that No. 10 is not much more than a hole in the air, that they don’t have to worry about him? About the same time, you’d think, that it would take for Barca coach Tito Villanova to realize that his gamble was a huge mistake, and that he should get Messi out of the game. Twenty minutes, maybe?
But Villanova, like Messi, like Barca, did nothing. All the doing in this game came from Bayern. (Plus some dismal doings from the Hungarian AAR who failed to notice Thomas Muller’s blatant body block on Jordi Alba during the buildup to Arjen Robben’s goal. You may recall that it was another Hungarian AAR who couldn’t see, from a distance of a few yards, that the Ukraine had scored against England during Euro 2012.)
Any hope that Barca now has of overcoming the four-goal gap starts with Messi being fit, and Xavi regaining his form. If we didn’t know before this, it is clear that Messi is absolutely essential to Barca’s functioning. Questions must be asked about Messi’s role in the decision to play him in Munich. Did he pronounce himself fit? Did he insist on playing? Does Villanova automatically do whatever Messi wants? If so, it needs noting that Messi has little experience of injuries or recovery times.
But even a fit Messi will not be enough to save Barca. The defense, always suspect, was exposed by Bayern, particularly its lack of height. Not something that can be remedied overnight.
Barca, then, were abjectly poor in a way that we have not seen for years. Poor because they were poor, or poor because Bayern never allowed them to be anything better? The usual combination of both factors, I suppose. As to Bayern, who seemed unstoppable, it’s worth recalling that they looked anything but invincible only six weeks ago while losing 2-0 -- in the lion’s den that is the Allianz Arena -- to a decidedly ordinary Arsenal.
Whether Bayern’s stunning win -- and the equally extraordinary triumph of Borussia Dortmund over Real Madrid -- mark the congé of the Spanish and the beginning of a German era in European club soccer, we’ll find out soon enough.
It seems unlikely that Barca and Real are as bad as they looked this week, but there can be no denying the skill and the freshness and the excitement of the German teams. That needs stressing, because this is not a case of the beauty of Barcelona being trampled on by the beast of Bayern. The Germans are playing excellent soccer.
One thing can be guaranteed: if the German teams do take over, their dominance will not last very long. That’s not the way things go in the modern game. The English and the Italian and the Spanish teams may be down. But they are not out.
Oh -- and just one more thing. Anyway, how English are the English teams? How Italian the Italians? How Spanish the Spanish? And, how German the Germans?