Bayern Munich outclasses Barcelona en route to Champions League final
Arjen Robben finished the tie off three minutes after halftime at Camp Nou, but in truth, it was finished a week ago at Allianz Arena. Bayern Munich completed the task, a 3-0 win and 7-0 aggregate, with rather less alarm than Borussia Dortmund had against Real Madrid the previous night, and so there will be, as had always seemed likely after the first legs, an all-German Champions League final.
The astonishing thing about this Barcelona side is how far it has fallen and how fast. With Lionel Messi consigned to the bench by his hamstring injury, Barca was flat and, essentially, devoid of hope. What was startling in Munich last week was not that it lost; this is, after all, an exceptional Bayern team, but how it lost discipline, how it allowed the tie to be ended in the first leg.
At 2-0, even at 3-0, there might have been a chance of putting Bayern under pressure. The psychology of two-legged ties can be very strange, as Madrid almost proved against Dortmund on Tuesday: score one goal, stir up doubts, and even the best sides can start to lose their mental composure.
But even had the margin been narrower, Barca would have had to break Bayern down, and there rarely seemed much chance of that, even before indiscipline took over again (and here, perhaps, is the consequence of playing in a league in which you habitually dominate: Barca seems to have forgotten how to close a game down, how to arrest the momentum when it starts to tip the other way).
Perhaps if Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova hadn't been ill, it wouldn't have happened, but a staleness has been allowed to develop, something most obvious in the reliance on Messi. It would be natural, of course, for any side to tend to play through a forward of such epoch-defining quality, but Barca has come to need him -- an absurd outcome given the quality elsewhere in the side.
Bela Guttmann, the brilliant but irascible Hungarian coach who led Benfica to its two European Cups, noted that "the third year is fatal." His argument was that if a team played together for too long, it became stale, something he circumvented by changing clubs on a regular basis. The other strategy is to pursue the strategy of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or Bob Paisley at Liverpool, bringing in a player or two every season and cull a key player or two every couple of years, both to change the pattern and pour encourager les autres.
Barca perhaps tried to do that when it brought in the likes of David Villa, Javier Mascherano, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Dmytro Chyrynskyi. Villa and Mascherano, to an extent, have fitted in, but none of the others have.
Much has been written about Barca's philosophy and the advantages of the production line from La Masia. When it works, of course, it is a magnificent thing, but there is nothing in football that is not relative, and this is the downside: Barca's style is so idiosyncratic -- which is what made it great, unstoppable even, at times -- that outsiders find it extremely hard to adapt to. The shortage of central defenders, meanwhile, that left Barca to pick a novice like Marc Bartra because of only two injuries (and one of those to a 35-year-old) can only be attributed to poor squad management.
That means that when things go wrong, there is no quick fix. Even if there is another brilliant generation in the offing, it's much harder to bed them in a struggling side than one that is thriving. The economic model of modern football means that, barring something cataclysmic, Barcelona will remain among the top two in Spain and among the top 10 sides in Europe, but it is now some way from the continent's top one. Not for 26 years had it lost both legs of a European tie. Perhaps with a consistent coaching from Vilanova there will be a radical improvement, but it looks an almighty task now.
And things have gone wrong -- appallingly so. One of Barcelona's great strengths was its pressing. It pressed not in twos and threes, not in one line, but as a team, not merely closing down the man with the ball but shutting off his passing options. This season, the pressing has been nowhere near so intense. When it did attempt to press against Bayern, all Jupp Heynckes' side had to do was get by the first wave and the break was one. It was hard not to be reminded of Barca's games against Arsenal in 2010 and 2011: this was essentially a repetition, but with Barca in the Arsenal role.
Twice in the first half Gerard Pique saved Barca with brilliant sliding challenges, but the goal was coming. Its source was predictable: a combination of Bayern excellence and Barca laxity. Barca goalie Victor Valdes' clearance was sloppy (and long, itself an indication of the pressure Bayern was able to exert), presenting possession to David Alaba on the halfway line on the Bayern left. His cross-field ball found Robben in space. Adriano, astonishingly given how much Robben favors his left side, allowed him to cut inside and curve a shot into the top corner in the 49th minute.
Barca at that point needed six goals. Given the only chances it had created in the first half were a long-range Pedro effort that Manuel Neuer flipped over and an opportunity that Xavi hooked over, that was never going to happen. Barca effectively surrendered. There was no point in risking Messi from there in what could only be a losing cause, and Xavi and Andres Iniesta were both taken off midway through the second half.
That Dani Alves, magnificent attacking right back that he is, is an ordinary defender has long been known; previously it hasn't really mattered, but Franck Ribery exposed him for Bayern's second, running on Luiz Gustavo's through-ball. He was played onside by Pique, whose attempt to get back succeeded only in slicing the ball into his own net in the 72nd. Ribery then skipped by Song to set up the third goal, nodded in at the back post by Thomas Muller in the 76th.
Bayern didn't just beat Barca; it outclassed it. Bayern may not beat Dortmund at Wembley, but it's hard to argue it's not the best team in Europe. Barca, meanwhile, has major repair work to do; it's golden time has gone.