In the space of six weeks FC Barcelona have twice faced glee-filled suggestions of a collapse so monumental in proportions as to draw worthy comparison with the Australian middle-order! On March 12th 2013 a swashbuckling 4-0 demolition of Italian giants AC Milan in the European Champions League provided a brutal statement of intent in response to the critical mauling that followed their tame 2-0 reversal in the first-leg encounter. A high-octane, super-charged performance fuelled by a raging passion and desire to ram the gloating taunts suggesting an imminent demise firmly back down the throats of their doubters! A mesmeric display from their Argentine magician Lionel Messi, a metronomic passing masterclass from their Spanish World Cup winning axis of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and the rampaging Dani Alves and Jordi Alba on the flanks; arguably the finest club side for a generation served notice that they were not prepared to meekly surrender their throne without a struggle. And, true to form, the European media moved quickly to erase their premature obituaries of FC Barcelona; practically falling over themselves in the clamour to lavish praise and hail the mastery and self-belief of the Catalan Carousel.
Fast-forward a month or so and Barca’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of FC Bayern Munich has seen the Catalan’s once again cast as a fast-diminishing force; a weak squad overly-reliant on Messi and hamstrung by a club ideology that persists with an outdated tiki-taka style that has been ‘found out’ and surpassed by the power and pace of the teutonic thoroughbreds of FC Bayern. Indeed, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s annihilation of Real Madrid, there has been a barrage of criticism and accusation hurled towards Spain’s La Liga amidst fervent speculation and debate as to just how far the quality within Spain’s domestic league has fallen behind the all-conquering German Bundesliga!?
There is little doubt in my mind that, barring Barca’s heroics against AC Milan, the two most impressive clubs in this season’s European Champions League have been FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. And by a distance! It is no surprise to me that London’s Wembley Stadium could play host to the first all-German Final in the competition’s history. And deservedly so! But can two matches truly gauge an irreversible power-shift to crown the Bundesliga?
Borussia Dortmund remain the only unbeaten side in this year’s European Champions League and have played Real Madrid three times so far, twice in the initial Group Stage (Dortmund winning 2-1 at home and sharing the spoils 2-2 in Madrid) before the semi-final first-leg 4-1 triumph. But it is equally relevant to recall that Dortmund were seconds away from elimination at the hands of Malaga CF in the previous round before a contentious injury-time goal saw the Germans squeeze through. FC Bayern topped a group containing Spain’s final representative, Valencia CF, and have enjoyed a relatively untroubled cruise into the semi-final, despatching both Arsenal and Juventus with the minimum of fuss.
Looking a little closer at Bayern’s dominant 4-0 first-leg victory over Barca there can be no denying the German’s superiority in all departments on the field of play. They harassed Barcelona in possession of the ball, pressuring the normally unflappable Barca midfield into uncharacteristic errors and forcing their powerful style upon the visitors. Rarely have I seen Xavi and Andres iniesta misplace so many passes and be so careless in possession. But, without taking anything away from FC Bayern, I also believe Barca contributed to their downfall in certain key areas. Firstly it was patently obvious that Lionel Messi was nowhere near fit enough to play following his thigh injury. He was little more than a passenger! It is difficult enough to compete with FC Bayern with a full complement of players on the pitch; to attempt to do so with just ten-men was suicidal, no matter Messi’s reputation and undoubted quality! Whilst not as gifted as Messi, surely David Villa or Cesc Fabregas could have made a more substantial contribution than the lame Argentine?
Secondly I felt Barca were naive in failing to adjust their approach to combat Bayern’s tactics. Marc Bartra is a fine defensive prospect but he clearly lacks the physical presence of a Carles Puyol and found himself dominated by Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller. Could the physically taller and more experienced Sergio Busquets have switched to the centre of the defence to assist Gerard Pique instead? Barca coach Tito Vilanova has earned deserved plaudits for his dignity and strength in dealing with his own health concerns, but he cut a sad figure on the sidelines of the Allianz Arena; appearing impotent and seeming to lack that quality to act decisively. Since leaving Barcelona Pep Guardiola has seen his reign and legacy at the Nou Camp analysed and scrutinised with an agenda to somehow diminish his staggering achievements?! “Anyone could have coached that team” argue the sceptics! But Guardiola’s shrewd tactical acumen was under-appreciated outside of Barcelona; he introduced numerous positional adjustments and tactical variations during his time in charge that are perhaps only now, in his absence, being recognised and acknowledged for their true worth. Does Vilanova possess that same level of awareness, ability and stature to affect a match with his decisions? And, whilst the scoreline did not flatter Bayern’s utter superiority on the night, Barcelona could certainly argue the case that at least one (Thomas Muller’s blatant block in the build-up to Arjen Robben’s strike), and probably two (Mario Gomez was offside for Bayern’s 2nd goal) of their goals should have been disallowed by vaguely competent officials!
So what next? It is of course possible that both Barca and Real Madrid could dig deep and deliver another blockbuster performance to overturn their respective deficits….however unlikely that scenario appears. Real Madrid have their solitary away-goal to cling to, but it is fanciful to suggest that a rampant FC Bayern – who proudly sit 20pts clear in their domestic league – or the supremely impressive Borussia Dortmund could both suffer the most catastrophic of aberrations and lose their sizeable advantages. An all-German European Champions League Final surely beckons? But England, Italy and Spain have already achieved that notable honour….and for all the sudden acclaim for the Bundesliga’s quality it has to be acknowledged that the last German side to win the European Champions League was FC Bayern way back in 2001. Since then England can boast three different winners – Liverpool, Man Utd and Chelsea - AC Milan and Inter have flown the flag for Italy and Spain can revel in the achievements of Real Madrid and Barcelona in recent campaigns.
I can only applaud the Bundesliga’s structure of encouraging youth development, of insisting on financial stability with club ownership and also insisting that each club remains in majority-German ownership. Their stadiums are modern, with sensible ticket prices to encourage attendance from spectators from all backgrounds and thus creating a vibrant and passionate atmosphere in those stadiums. And the solid financial base has seen a number of clubs challenge for the league title alongside FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, including Bayer Levekusen, FC Schalke, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg. But it is surely premature to hail a passing of the guard based on the, albeit dominant, results in just two football matches? What if both Barcelona and Real Madrid were to emerge victorious in the upcoming reverse fixtures…if not necessarily by the margins required to reach the Final? The Spanish giants will surely strengthen in the transfer market and the European malaise of the much-hyped English Premier League cannot surely stretch into another season of under-achievement? Congratulations to FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund on a fantastic season….but they need to repeat these feats over the next few years to confirm a genuine power-shift to the Bundesliga….