Column: Europe will show champions’ true worth

Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are devaluing
their own success by making it look too easy.

Although it is still winter in Europe, they are already 99
percent certain of winning their leagues in Spain, England and
Germany. Their leads are so large – 15 points for Bayern, 12 for
both United and Barcelona – that it would be truly stunning if they
collapsed in the months ahead and failed to lift their domestic
trophies.

Impressive, but not very illuminating.

The downside of such dominance is that it hasn’t told us as much
as we would like about how good Barcelona, United and Bayern
actually are this season. Truly exceptional? Or made to look that
way by domestic rivals performing less well than expected?

Which is why their progress in the knockout stages of the
Champions League, starting with United’s match Wednesday at Real
Madrid, will be particularly interesting this year. Flunk this
European test and it might be said that United, Barcelona and
Bayern’s 2013 teams didn’t rank among their greatest, even if they
win their domestic leagues by a country mile.

That said, Barcelona this season looks as awesome as its team
that won the Champions League in 2011, when it gave a football
lesson to United in the Wembley final. Lionel Messi is even more
impressive than he was then, proving that he can perfect
perfection. With two additional years in their 30-plus-year-old
legs, you would give United defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice
Evra even less chance now of thwarting Messi should their paths
cross again in Europe in months ahead.

The effort of wresting away the Spanish league from Barcelona in
2012 seems to have exhausted Madrid. Two months ago, Madrid coach
Jose Mourinho was already conceding that his team had fallen too
far behind its historic rival to defend the Spanish title in 2013.
That lack of sustained pressure from Madrid has made Barcelona’s
near-flawless season – 20 wins in 23 league games; 62 points from a
possible 69 – seem a little less astounding than it is.

If Messi and friends want to be described again as the best club
team in football history, as they were by some in 2011, they need
to win this year in Europe, because running away with a lopsided
Spanish league title won’t, by itself, be enough. Anything less
than a place in the Wembley final on May 25 would be a failure for
a team that, in Messi, has arguably the best footballer ever.
Barcelona’s round-of-16 opponent in the Champions League is AC
Milan.

In Germany, Bayern’s defensive statistics in the Bundesliga
almost defy belief. In 21 games, it has conceded just seven goals,
better than any team in Europe’s top leagues and considerably
better than Barcelona or United. The only team to beat Bayern in
league play, Bayer Leverkusen, is also the only team to have scored
more than one goal against its miserly defense, getting two in
Munich in October.

But, again, because Bayern has so monopolized its league,
European competition could be a truer test of Franck Ribery and his
teammates. Certainly, it’s the only way to measure their
determination to avenge 2012, when Chelsea pickpocketed them in the
final in their own backyard in Munich. Bayern plays Arsenal in the
round of 16.

Of the three, the current United team most needs a European
stamp of approval to prove its worth. Buying Robin van Persie from
Arsenal last summer was great business for United. He and Wayne
Rooney look like they have played together for years, not months.
Madrid has to stick a spanner in their attacking partnership to
reach the Champions League quarterfinals. United manager Alex
Ferguson must blunt the goal-scoring menace from Cristiano Ronaldo,
his former protege. Those and other plot-lines make this a cerebral
match-up.

At the end of the season, it will almost certainly be United
parading through Manchester with the Premier League trophy. If
United’s winning margin is as big or bigger than now, its
achievement almost certainly won’t seem as impressive as it
actually is. That will be because of the sneaking suspicion that
Manchester City made it too easy for United and surrendered the
title it won last year without enough of a fight.

Ferguson’s teams, sometimes unfairly, also suffer in comparison
with each other. The list of illustrious names at United who made
history with Ferguson and before is so long that newer players need
to do something special to make their own big mark.

Something like being the team that stopped Madrid from winning a
10th European crown. Or that won United its fourth. There’d be no
better proof of quality.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester