As fireworks lit up the Barcelona skyline in celebration of La Blaugrana reaching the Champions League final, over at the Allianz Arena, their former Coach Pep Guardiola marched across the sideline towards his old friend. The man who had often gotten the better of Luis Enrique as the ‘better’ player and the ‘better Coach’ finally fell short. Sportsmanlike, Pep embraced his opposite number, and in doing so, one would think, offered Enrique his heartfelt felicitations.
Barcelona, of course, had just sealed their tie against Bayern Munich with a 5-3 aggregate win, a result which will see them travel to Berlin, the capital of Germany which lies 600 km north of Munich, for the final. And judging by their sub-par performance, the Catalans, literally, and perhaps metaphorically, have a long way to go before potentially being crowned champions.
Bathing in the success of their first-leg 3-0 win at Camp Nou, Barca seemed content to take their foot off the pedal in the most crucial of times. Bayern, yet again depleted due to injury, began the match with a bang, and exposed Barcelona’s deficiencies with set-pieces as they hit the lead on the seventh minute from a corner. Mehdi Benatia, who himself was ruthlessly criticised for his inability to handle crucial moments, ironically, became a figure of hope for the Bavarians.
And just as Bayern seemed as though they would somehow miraculously claw their way back into the tie, Barcelona hit back through the triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. The two goals in the 15th and 29th minute followed the same pattern – Messi would provide the incisive pass to cut open the Bayern defence and Suarez would set up Neymar – strikes which all but ended Bayern’s hopes of a comeback.
Just a week earlier, Guardiola had claimed that stopping Messi and co. was practically impossible. Following this match though, Pep could barely shy away from praising his former side by, once again, suggesting that the ‘better’ side made it through the Champions League final. Indeed, as highlighted earlier, the attacking trio, once again, were impressive, sparking fierce online debate as to whether they could be considered the best ever. But, truth be told, the result could’ve been completely different.
Fact is, Bayern had every chance of winning tie. Indeed, in the most crucial moments of the match, Barcelona’s defence seemed to collapse under pressure with La Masia graduate Thiago Alcantara acting as tormentor-in-chief. In fact, it is almost unfair that Barcelona headed into half-time with the slender lead and eventually ran away with the overall victory. Where Barcelona seemed to falter, Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood tall.
Ter Stegen, of course, was ‘that’ young Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper who had previously saved one of Messi’s penalties in an international fixture. He was the same goalkeeper who, despite making waves in the Bundesliga, arrived at Barcelona a relative unknown under the watchful gaze of former director of football Andoni Zubizaretta, a legendary custodian in his own right.
Enrique, though, favoured Claudio Bravo, the highly successful Chile international who had arrived at the club off the back of a World Cup run into the quarter-finals and was a veteran in Spain’s domestic competitions. As a result, a compromise was reached – the young German would play every Cup match, including the Champions League. Bravo, on the other hand, the La Liga matches.
While Bravo excelled in the Barcelona colours, Ter Stegen struggled, most notably his wobbly performance at the Parc des Princes in the earlier stages of the competition. From then on, however, Ter Stegen has not looked back with fantastic performances in the continental stage, proving that his maturity was well beyond his years.
And for Bayern, it was the kid who so vocally idolised Manuel Neuer who valiantly saw off wave after wave of attack. As Thomas Muller’s header off a cross from a quick counter-attack crept towards goal, it was Ter Stegen who denied Bayern the lead. When Robert Lewandowski somehow mustered a toe-poke towards goal, it was Ter Stegen’s quick reaction that saved Barcelona of embarrassment. And who could forget his 39th minute save?
With Thiago’s effort blocked, Lewandowski found himself unmarked in the centre of the box, lashing a shot of goal, which, somehow, Ter Stegen kept out before recovering in time to palm away the deflection which was bearing down on goal.
Although beaten three times, Ter Stegen’s heroics effectively meant was the man who kept Barcelona away from trouble and will not be forgotten anytime soon. The man who was once unknown and highly unfavoured, has matured into a star – a star which will continue to shine for a while to come.