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Soccer in shock as Germany wipes out Spain
by Paul Gardner, April 26th, 2013 2:51PM

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TAGS:  england, germany, italy, spain, uefa champions league

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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?



18 comments
  1. James Froehlich
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 3:21 p.m.
    Excelllent analysis Mr. Gardner. Yes Barca had excuses but ultimately, that's what they were -- excuses! Bayern beat them whether it was 4, 3, or 2 --- 0. However, whether Barca wins or not, their style of play has changed the face of world football. Even the esteemed EPL has teams practicing their versions of tiki taka -- Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Swansea City. In MLS we have the beginnings of Porter-ball in Portland. And even the USMNT's are starting to try to play a skillful more possession oriented game. Thank you Barca!!! However, I personally don't consider the "era" over. Barca needs a big young central defender and an alternative to Pedro-Sanchez-Villa who are more like Messi clones than alternatives. Then the NEW era can begin!

  1. C Remund
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 3:56 p.m.
    Cue the obligatory "Play Like Bayern" and "Play Like Dortmund" coaching manuals, articles, etc.

  1. Chris Sapien
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 4 p.m.
    This is exactly why "Style" arguments are a waste of time, other than someone expressing their percieved enjoyment of a particular type of game. For all the skill level references of a particlar style, they do not exist in a vacuum nor are they related to how a team plays defensively. The ball still has to go between the posts, under the crossbar and completely over the goal line! And I do believe physicality should be considered an asset....you can see how it effects a side when it comes to a player committing to or not to a challenge vs. a particular opponent. The space that creates at times can be all that is needed to launch a threatening strike on goal!

  1. F. Kirk Malloy
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 4:09 p.m.
    Wow, I've been waiting for Mr. Gardner's article expecting him to be howling over the blatant non-calls that turned an anyone-can-win 1-0 halftime score into a lopsided 3-0 lead. What a disappointing article and analysis. How obviously offside was Gomez to make it 2-0? 2 steps? 1.5 steps? How do all those officials miss that call? Then Mueller’s blind-side, cross-body block clears Robben for his goal. Again, how obvious was that non-call? You couldn't get away with that stunt in the American version of football, never mind the world's version. Dispirited and stretched thin, and going for an away goal, Barca gives up a counterattack 4th for the final result. Playing with a decimated back line, and with Messi at 80% (at best) – and with 2 highly dubious goals taking away whatever hope they might harbor – a most surprising final score provides no foundation for an end-of-the-reign conclusion. As noted by JF, Barca has changed the game forever. With a healthy, perhaps sturdier back line, Barca ball will be back with a vengeance, if not next week, soon. And from the depth of their senior team and their youth team’s performance up and down the age group ranks, Barca is here to stay. Aren’t we fans lucky!

  1. cony konstin
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.
    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? We sjoukd be asking ourselves HOW USONIAN/American ARE THE USONIAN/American TEAMS.

  1. Fidel Colman
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 4:26 p.m.
    Right again Mr Gardner - Right again!

  1. James Froehlich
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 5:23 p.m.
    Chris S -- I must disagree with your comment that style arguments are a waste of time. Regardless of what style you prefer, playing style is integral to most people's perception and enjoyment of any game. American football -- do you like 3 yards and a cloud of dust or "everybody go long". Basketball -- do you like fast breaks, outside shooting, drive to the basket, etc. In soccer, there's the long ball target man style, there's tiki taka, and numerous variations. In my opinion, if you're not interested in the style of play it's better to skip watching the game and just read the box scores. BTW no insult intended.

  1. Alex Viessmann
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.
    2 arm balls and a basketball style pick do not a terrible loss make. Sighted referees would have resulted in perhaps a 1-nil Munich victory.

  1. Chris Sapien
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 6:52 p.m.
    NO insult taken...(I think you need to read the last part of my first sentence again though)...but if you have read my posts before, I was referring to the practice here of no one offering or citing any proof/data that style is directly related to success. Every situation during a game is dictated by too many variables, and the players must identify and react to them, so in that style alone doesn't guarantee anything. That is the point. Why would you play the same style of game your opponent does, if you know they are susceptiple to teams who can rely on a counter strength? (ie-Bayern's superior heading prowess) The best teams can do these things, when necessary, without skipping a beat.

  1. feliks fuksman
    commented on: April 26, 2013 at 11:51 p.m.
    Paul good article as always!! Do I think Barcelona time as Kings is over, not so sure...Do they have enormous mountain to climb - FOR SURE! Is it impossible? No, but....Did Lewandowski have an amazing match? No doubt. It is to criticise after the fact, should have Messi started, played, subed, etc. Couple goals should have been not allowed, nevertheless, Bayern deserved to win. Moreover, so did Dortmund. Lets see what next week will bring...

  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 27, 2013 at 12:42 a.m.
    Chris and James F., you both make good points about style. Barca has changed the game for the better, by emphasizing possession and the short-passing game. But that style will not always win. No one style is always the best. And I find the contrasting styles teams play to be one of the things that makes soccer interesting, and universal. Different players bring different skills to the team; some have speed, some have quickness, some have exceptional ball skills, vision, work ethic (yes, PG, that is an important and valued component of the game, demonstrated frequently by Messi), commitment, finishing ability, etc. Because no one style always wins, there is room for variation. If Barca's style was unbeatable, no players over 5'7" would ever play professionally. But the fact that players of all different shapes, sizes and skills can play well makes the sport universal. Getting players to complement each other is what makes teams great. The German teams were exceptional this week, and to his credit, PG was fair in recognizing that. Given the questionable goals (and Messi's injury), as well as Barca's ball possession, I think the Bayern score was (unfortunately for the 2nd leg) a bit inflated, but no doubt they deserved to win. Against most teams, I'd say that even down by 4 Barca has a chance at home, but against Bayern, that's an awfully steep mountain.

  1. Bill Anderson
    commented on: April 27, 2013 at 8:22 a.m.
    Barcelona were a shadow of their former glory. Bayern were rampant. These are not style questions, but rather form questions. Great players, and great teams are not permanent. Form is not a constant, and players age, and things change. None of this happens in a vacuum.

  1. Gak Foodsource
    commented on: April 27, 2013 at 1:54 p.m.
    Barcelona aren't naked. Messi is hurt and Bayern were given two goals. Also worth pointing out that Messi is a must for Tito's Barcelona, not Guardiola's. This team doesn't press high when they lose possession like the did with Pep. They take more chances, both offensively and defensively. And they are built very singularly around Messi. Tactically, Cesc, Alves, and Pedro are all positioned off Messi's movements. Tito has taken Messi to new heights, but to do so, he had to provide Messi more freedom and provide others more tactical responsibilities.

  1. James Froehlich
    commented on: April 27, 2013 at 3:59 p.m.
    GAK -- excellent point. My FIRST thought is that it makes sense. I had arrived at the feeling that Pedro, Sanchez, and Villa just weren't doing the job but your comment puts a whole new light on that.

  1. Millwall America
    commented on: April 28, 2013 at 12:08 p.m.
    Let's not overdo the excuses for Barcelona. Bayern had two legitimate penalty shouts turned down for Barca handballs in the box. The 4-0 scoreline doesn't flatter Bayern and it could easily have been worse. Is it the end of an era? Not at all, I'm sure Barca will continue to dominate La Liga with their only real competition being Real Madrid. But it does mean that after a few years of confusion, the top European teams have started to figure out how to beat the Barca style. Barca have enough money that they will always be a contender for the CL title. They will almost certainly make it through the group stages every year. But I wouldn't be surprised if they start to get knocked out in the round of 8 or round of 16 in the years to come.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: April 28, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.
    Bill Anderson is spot on. The two German teams showed top notch form and delivered the KO punch...why be shocked? Barca looked lethargic and Messi was not fit...some unspotted fouls by the ref made a contribution...and Barca had no answer to BM's technical efficacy...plain & simple, RM was outclassed by a solid Dortmund squad. Mr. Millwall America's claim to two handballs on Barca players, on the contrary, I find them not to be intentional and the replays prove it...style didn't beat Barca, the opponent's intensity, purpose, and execution did. If it took a few years of confusion to figure out how to beat Barca, than soccer managers are idiots...control the ball and u control the game; and no one has shown the ability to control the ball and pace of the game as Barca has done for the last 5 years.

  1. Millwall America
    commented on: April 29, 2013 at 10:23 a.m.
    IW Nowozeniuk -- your comment is a perfect example of *why* it took soccer managers so long to figure out how to beat Barca. "control the ball and u control the game"...that's exactly what the managers thought for several years. The managers foolishly tried to beat Barca at their own game by trying to "control the ball". Only recently have the top teams decided that they don't need to control the ball to keep a handle on the game, and that conceding the lion's share of possession to Barca doesn't automatically mean a loss. Barca had 63% possession in the whipping they took from Bayern. Bayern allowed Barca to "control the ball", but very seldom in ways that could do any damage.

  1. ROBERT BOND
    commented on: April 29, 2013 at 11:42 a.m.
    Only thing holding the Bundesliga back is terrible TV coverage in the US. Now that nbc got the BPL, maybe Fox & E$PN will try to get that contract. The Barca apologists don't respond when you point out they had only 3 shots on goal, & their 65% possession was mostly outside the penalty box, a lot on their half of the pitch-we'll see what changes this week.


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