The build-up to Barcelona’s do or die Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich blended an acute sense of the inevitable with the sound of straws being clutched at. Only three clubs had ever recovered a four-goal first-leg deficit in European competition history. Borussia Monchengladbach, led by current Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes, beat Real Madrid 5-1 at home in the 1985-86 UEFA Cup, only to lose the return 4-0.
Bayern’s last visit to Camp Nou, in 2008-09, resulted in a 4-0 defeat and Barcelona had won their last 10 home games against German visitors. Lionel Messi scored five, a Champions League record, as Barca mauled their most recent Bundesliga opponents Bayer Leverkusen 7-1 in last season’s competition.
Barca had put on a scintillating display in March, thumping Milan 4-0 at Camp Nou to overturn a lacklustre 2-0 reverse at San Siro in the Last 16, but any slender hopes of a repeat against a disciplined and talented Bayern side were quickly dispelled last night, with the injured Messi a spectator on the bench.
For once, the Catalans failed to dominate possession, edging the Germans only by 58 per cent to 42 per cent in that respect, a statistic reflected by Bayern’s constant pressing of the home side, not quite as relentlessly as at the Allianz Arena, but nevertheless beating Barca at their own game and generating panic among their unconvincing defence.
La Blaugrana still found the energy to attack their opponents and to try to up the pace, but as they pushed forward in search of an elusive goal they were left looking vulnerable on the break, with Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller seizing any opportunity to counter. With Messi out of the frame, it was Robben whose individual brilliance lit up Camp Nou, the winger cutting inside Adriano to curl into the far corner for Bayern’s first.
Coach Tito Vilanova responded with substitutions, but Messi failed to appear. The withdrawal of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, with Messi taking no part in the action, was as good as the raising of a white flag from the Barca dugout. With the tie already lost, Vilanova opted to protect his tired soldiers as Ribery’s left-wing cross sliced off Gerard Pique’s shin and then Muller out-muscled Marc Bartra and Adriano to complete the Catalans’ misery.
Vilanova defended his decision not to play Messi against Bayern, arguing that Barca were not a one-man team and refuting suggestions that their dependence on Messi had become greater this season. Whether even the brilliant Argentine would have single-handedly changed the direction of the tie seems doubtful. The extent of the aggregate defeat, Barcelona’s worst ever in Europe, suggests that far more fundamental restructuring is required.
Vilanova admitted that Bayern’s physical superiority had played a crucial role in both legs of the tie but rejected calls for an end-of-season clear-out at Camp Nou, claiming recuperation of the present squad was required, rather than radical change.
Yet surely, to reach such an advanced stage of the Champions League, only to be beaten by a better side with physically stronger players suggests that the present squad is inadequately equipped to cope with the severest challenges that the best teams will inevitably face.
None of Barcelona’s star turns are getting any younger and if the rigours of defending the Primera title and fighting for Europe’s biggest club prize are too much, then the squad must be at least reinforced and preferably overhauled before next season’s challenge begins.