Bayern stages clinic on Barcelona

BY Jamie Trecker • April 23, 2013

The guard has changed in Europe.

Bayern Munich cemented their status as the best club in the world with a devastating and emasculating 4-0 win over the Barcelona team that once held that mantle. A pair of goals from Thomas Muller, and one apiece from Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez, dealt the Spanish giants their worst loss in Europe since 1997, and equaled Barcelona’s worst loss ever on the continent.

No team has ever recovered from such a thrashing to progress in the UEFA Champions League at this stage. You might tip Barcelona, still one of the great teams, to break that grim history -- unless of course you had watched Lionel Messi grimly limp about for 90 minutes Tuesday night. Clearly unfit to play after suffering a hamstring injury, the Argentine’s brilliance was unavailable to help mask Barcelona’s weaknesses at the back. While there is a chance he may be restored to his regular magnificence next Wednesday, the way his teammates departed – summed up when Jordi Alba chucked the ball into Robben’s face – suggests Barcelona now lack both the reserves and the belief.

Belief isn’t Bayern’s problem. They swaggered through as complete a performance as you could ever hope to see. The Bavarians tormented Barcelona in the air, dictated the pace of the game, and ruthlessly harassed a callow defensive line. Dani Alves, normally so potent running up the flank, was made to look foolish by Brazilian Dante on the opening goal. Gerard Pique was left to cover large swaths of the field, to little effect. The young Marc Bartra was simply out of his depth, and watching Franck Ribery round him was like watching a schoolyard bully pick on the kid with glasses.

Most damning of all was that when Bayern allowed Barcelona to have the ball, they could do little with it. The vaunted passing game that Xavi and Andres Iniesta have perfected alongside Messi wasn’t in evidence. In a first half that saw the Spaniards control the ball for over 60% of the time, they mustered not one true attempt on goal.

Bayern also got the details right: they heavily watered the pitch, turning the center circle into splashy soup to take away Barcelona’s slick passing, and then pressed them all over the pitch. The counters came at a speed the Spaniards simply couldn’t handle. Barcelona conceded corner after corner – eleven in sum. And when Dante out-leapt Dani Alves to nod down a Robben cross to Muller for the opening goal, you got the feeling that the script had been written.

Tito Vilanova will be questioned as to why he persisted with Messi after the break. Cesc Fabregas was available, but was left on the pine. It seemed a tacit admission that Messi’s presence is psychologically vital to this team – and that signals huge problems for their future.

After all, Barcelona’s issue is on defense, where their smaller players simply cannot handle a beating. Gomez doubled the advantage after the break on a similar play to the first goal: Muller outjumped the luckless Dani Alves, and Gomez smashed home a superb volley past Victor Valdes. Two balls tossed into the air, two times that Barcelona had been found wanting.

To be fair, Bayern’s third was controversial. Again, Muller and Robben were involved, with Robben firing home to the far post from an acute angle. What referee Victor Kassai inexplicably missed was Muller’s pick on Jordi Alba to send him tumbling in the box. It was a play better suited to the likes of ex-basketball star Bill Laimbeer than European soccer, but it stood. And that broke Barcelona – Muller would finally nab his second with eight to play the Catalans had already capitulated.

The game took place against the backdrop of twin announcements, one good – one very bad. Bayern announced that they had snatched away Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Goetze for a sum that will make him Germany’s most expensive player. Dortmund were said to be furious about the timing of the announcement, understandable since they have a massive game against Real Madrid themselves (live, FX, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET).

Bayern were certainly less pleased to learn that Uli Hoeness, the club’s president, had admitted to tax evasion in a case that has taken on huge political overtones in Germany. Hoeness’ long-term future is now up in the air.

Near-term, it seems certain Hoeness will be in one of the fancy boxes at Wembley on May 25. Bayern await their next victim.

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