A late Lionel Messi show guided Barcelona to a brilliant 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final on Wednesday.
Thomas Vermaelen had yet to debut for La Blaugrana since his arrival from Arsenal last summer but was given the green light to take his place on the bench for the first time this evening. Elsewhere, Luis Enrique stuck with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen – an ever present in the Champions League this season – between the sticks, while the rest of the team was the one which demolished Cordoba 8-0 in La Liga.
The visitors, meanwhile, started three Spaniards at Camp Nou – former Valencia left-back Juan Bernat, ex-Real Madrid and European champion Xabi Alonso and the returning Thiago Alcantara – in a much-changed XI from the 2-0 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, with eight new additions in total, including Robert Lewandowski, who wore a protective mask.
Both sides’ last meeting came in the Champions League semi-finals of two years ago, when Bayern thrashed Barca 7-0 on aggregate to set up an all-German final with Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, but Wednesday’s rematch was a far-more open affair, with the two teams going at each other from the off to make for a hugely-enthralling spectacle.
However, Pep’s decision to start the match with a back three looked like backfiring not before long as Luis Enrique squandered a gilt-edged one-on-one with Neuer within the first 20 minutes. It was enough of a warning sign for the trainer to switch to a four-man defence.
Nonetheless, Barca maintained their swashbuckling style as Bayern eased off theirs and carved out two more potential openings, firstly Neymar’s tap-in from Suarez’s cross blocked by a last-ditch Philipp Lahm block, before the goalkeeper denied Dani Alves from close range.
Robert Lewandowski, in the other corner, committed the sin of wasting Bayern’s only clear-cut opportunity as he was found unmarked in the box to convert Thomas Muller’s inch-perfect pull-back home.
Bayern started the most brightly in the second half, but their early dominance proved futile and it gave Barca enough belief that they could change the dynamics of the match. And so they did via Messi.
With just 13 minutes remaining, Bernat was dispossessed by Alves down the left, and the right-back did his best to earn a new contract by laying the ball off for the Argentine to take aim with a low shot that beat Neuer at his near post.
Moments later, Messi took all the plaudits with a sensational second. Picking the ball up in the final third of the pitch, he left Jerome Boateng on the deck and sent a delightfully-executed chip over the goalkeeper.
The Catalans then exerted the perfect revenge on their humiliating exit from the last four two years ago with the finish that all-but-decided the tie in Barca’s favour as Neymar kept his cool to beat Neuer one-on-one.
Barcelona 3-0 Bayern Munich (3-0 agg.)
Messi 77, 80, Neymar 90
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano (Bartra 89), Alba; Busquets, Iniesta (Rafinha 87), Rakitic (Xavi 82); Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Bayern Munich: Neuer; Rafinha, Boateng, Benatia, Bernat; Muller (Gotze 79), Lahm, Alonso, Schweinsteiger, Thiago; Lewandowski
Referee: Rizzoli [ITA]