IT was shades of Brazilian’s dramatic World Cup capitulation in 2014, the curtain-down on a golden age, the beginning of the end of a glittering career and the awe-inspiring intent of a team determined to become European champions. It wasn’t just Barcelona that looked shell-shocked, resigned and distraught, the millions who watched the epic, “The Desolation of the Blaugrana” were witnessing the eclipse of one of the most talked-about teams in history.
If Brazil is the nation that suffers most from the burden of expectation when it comes to their football team, Barca are possibly the most celebrated club in modern football. Real Madrid may have more European honours, but Barca and Lionel Messi represent not just the concept of artistic expression, they are standard-bearers for a football ideology. It has been coming for a while – just ask Roma and Liverpool – but Bayern Munich brushed them aside and confirmed the Barca way may have become a little passé.
In the aftermath of this crushing 8-2 defeat, the city of Barcelona – which also saw Espanyol relegated from La Liga – may have very dark cloud cover for days to come. The 2019-20 season is Barcelona’s first without a trophy of any sort since 2008, although in 2014, they only lifted the Supercopa de España.
Time has caught up on Barca’s squad – six members of their starting line-up against Bayern were over 30. They lacked speed up front and they cannot cope with a midfield that has energy and pace.
In balmy August, after a long campaign in which Real Madrid knocked them off their champions’ perch, a team of veterans was bound to look fatigued, but there is more to Barca’s decline. Politically, the club is in some turmoil and has all the intrigue of a Watergate investigation. Add to that the ongoing neurosis about how the club will cope when the number 10 with an increasingly deep frown decides it is time to go home to Argentina or seek refuge elsewhere, and Barca is clearly a directionless club at the moment. To make matters even more complex, there are financial issues to address, which is a little strange given the amount of cash that circulates the club.
Let’s not take anything away from Bayern, they were superb, rapier-like and totally unforgiving of Barca’s appalling set-up. Bayern have scored 39 goals in nine Champions league games, including seven at Tottenham, six in Belgrade and now eight in Lisbon. Robert Lewandowski, who has scored a half century of goals in 2019-20, has netted 14 in the competition.
Bayern’s aggression and confidence was too much for Barcelona just as it had been earlier in the competition when they disposed of the London duo, Tottenham and Chelsea. Players like Manuel Neuer, Ivan Perišić, Jérôme Boateng, Thomas Müller and Lewandowski are all 30-plus, but Bayern have younger talent such as the excellent Alphonso Davies, the reborn Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich and Kingsley Coman.
Most of Bayern’s current squad have not experienced winning the Champions League and in recent years, they have been eliminated by the eventual winners four times in six years. In 2018-19, they were beaten by Liverpool in the round of 16. That exit posed questions about Bayern’s team and whether it had peaked. When the team started 2019-20 in lack-lustre fashion, it looked as though a rebuild was an imperative. Hansi Flick took over from the doomed Niko Kovač after Frankfurt inflicted a 5-1 defeat upon Bayern and he lost twice in the Bundesliga in 24 games. Bayern’s last defeat was on December 7 at Borussia Mönchengladbach. From being as low as seventh in the table, Bayern ended 13 points ahead of Borussia Dortmund, their nearest challengers at the top. They also completed the double by beating Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB Pokal final.
Bayern, as ever, identified a problem and dealt with it in the way they always do, protecting their position and looking within. Barcelona now face some serious questions and if Messi does depart soon, they could be in big trouble. This is a club that set a benchmark in the first decade of the century, but like every movement, it has its time. Now, the club has to evolve or reinvent itself to prepare for the post-Messi era with better, more considered and strategic recruitment and reasserted commitment to the development of young talent.
It wasn’t just the pace and drive of Bayern that unsettled Barca, they also looked like a team with no joie de vivre or organisation. The coach, Quique Setién, will almost certainly be replaced, nobody can surely survive this end-of-days humiliation.
What now for Bayern? They will face Manchester City or Lyon in the semi-final. If it is City it will be the clash of the two best teams left in the competition. Some will say it will be the “real final”, but PSG and Leipzig will have something to say about that. As for Barcelona, it’s hats-off to a team that changed world football. But that was then, this is now.