Yep, it was me. Have to ‘fess it up. I’m the muppet that went against logic and found an argument that said Barcelona could turn history on its head, along with a four goal deficit against Bayern Munich. Instead, the evening probably turned into the most humiliating ninety minutes in the recent history of the Blaugrana. The three nil victory – meaning a net aggregate seven goal thumping – certainly did not flatter the German club, who surely could have added a few more if they hadn’t already sated themselves, and took players off way before the end to save them for the now all-German final. The question that the Catalan club to face now, is whether this signifies the end of their majestic period of dominance.
I have to say that as soon as I arrived home from the office and saw Sky reporting that Messi was on the bench, my confidence in the predicted upset melted like snow on summer’s day. Having watched the little Argentinian come from the bench at the weekend to score a majestic goal, I was sure he would be fit and charged for this epic encounter. Instead he sat crouched on the bench throughout. The disappointment however was more than magnified by the performance offered by the Barcelona players on the pitch. Where, the previous evening, Real Madrid had torn into Dortmund with an energy and passion throughout the entire game that, in the last knockings, brought a couple of late goals and a period of exquisite drama, Barcelona were both timid and tepid, seemingly bereft of the craving and craft required to produce the required miracle.
In my piece a few days ago, I referred to how the crowd at the Camp Nou would not allow a timid defeat. I was wrong. The apparent acceptance of inevitable defeat quickly spread from pitch to stands, and the atmosphere was more akin to ‘at a wake’ than ‘awake.’ The roar transformed to torpor. Reports coming out of the club today are that Messi’s injury didn’t prevent him from playing some part of the game. If this is true, the inevitable consequence is that the club basically gave up on the tie. It seems an improbable fact, but drawing other conclusions is difficult. Great clubs bristle with defiance in adversity, but without the cajoling of Catalan born and bred Puyol, passion seemed sadly absent. For all football fans who delight in the geometry of Barca’s hypnotic play, the display was sorely dispiriting.
Being bereft of Messi is always going to harm a team’s performance level, but suddenly Xavi looked the age he is, with passes going astray. Iniesta flitted around, but ineffectively. Villa was obscure and Pedro broadly anonymous. The team that a few weeks ago was seen as the dominant force in Europe suddenly looked in desperate need of an overhaul.
It would be easy to say that the absence of Vilanova due to illness has disrupted the efficacy of the team. Clearly this has been an influence, but the reason for Barcelona’s exit is simply more prosaic than that. As is often the case over two-legged affairs, the best team won. Simply put, Bayern were head and shoulders the better team and the score simply reflected that fact.
As the Catalan hierarchy contemplate the future, they will first be grateful for the points cushion built up over the season that almost guarantees the league title. In the longer term however, it will be a task of some proportion to turn a team that suddenly looks sullenly depressed by its shock of mortality, into a vigorous self-assured outfit again. As an advocate of the type of football that Barcelona have displayed over the past few years, I hope it can be achieved. If not, there’ll only be the memories of the team performances and individual brilliance of a club that dominated for a while. That will be football’s homage to Catalunya.