A 4-0 trouncing in the first leg. A 3-0 defeat at home in the second. Lionel Messi unfit and on the bench. Xavi and Andres Iniesta substituted. An utter and comprehensive humiliation. How did it come to this?
In the end, Barcelona’s Champions League exit was meek; their submission to Bayern Munich’s superiority almost willing.
“The truth is that it isn’t pleasant living through a situation like this,” defender Gerard Pique told reporters after Wednesday’s semifinal departure from Europe’s most prestigious club competition. “We have to congratulate Bayern, who were superior...The fact that [Lionel] Messi, the best player in the world, didn’t play was a factor, but I don’t think his participation tonight would have changed things all that much.” (Uefa.com)
No, it wouldn’t have. Especially on the evidence of his first-leg performance, in which he struggled to even be relevant while clearly suffering from a hamstring injury picked up against Paris Saint-Germain in early April.
Nevertheless, Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova started the four-time Ballon d’Or winner, who had played all of 28 minutes in the previous three weeks while nursing his injury, in the first leg at Allianz Arena, but with the 25-year-old’s body quite clearly rejecting the demands being put on it was forced to bench the Argentine in the second.
As far as man-management goes, Vilanova’s handling of his best player—the best player in the world—was not only inept, it could not have been dealt with worse.
Those cynics who have long claimed Barcelona are just another very good team without Messi were given a fresh ration of fuel for their argument over the last eight days, and for that the blame falls squarely at the feet of those whose job it is to tend the fitness and freshness of the players available to them.
Since 2008-09 Messi has never played fewer than 50 club matches in a season—all but a handful of them for the full 90 minutes—and last season turned out an incredible 60 times for Barcelona. It shouldn’t take a physiotherapist to realize such a regimen is unsustainable, and that the knock Messi picked up at Parc des Princes was a stress injury only further proves he has simply played too much football for too long a time.
It was always foolish to expect such complete over-reliance to last forever, and it just happened to be Bayern Munich they were facing when it all went to pieces.
Because while Barcelona were never going to replace Messi man-for-man, they should have at least had the options to either plug his hole with a competitive alternative or readjust their strategy entirely by bringing different players in different positions into the squad.
But Barcelona have no such depth, and the lack of it had as much to do with their pair of losses to Bayern Munich as anything else.
“We have to congratulate Bayern; they are in extraordinary form,” conceded Barcelona midfielder Xavi after the final whistle. “They were better than us and are worthy finalists. We noticed the players missing in defense. It is not an excuse but we are talking about absences that weaken the team.” (Uefa.com)
Not that it should have been so weakened.
How long have Barcelona relied on a Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets to slide into the centre of defense when one, or both, of Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique have been missing? How many years have they attended to the attacking positions while neglecting the ones in front of the goalkeeper?
Neither Mascherano nor Busquets was available against Bayern, and with Puyol injured (again) and Jordi Alba suspended, it fell to the vastly inexperienced Marc Bartra and the slightly-above-average Adriano to replace them. By virtue of their personnel alone, Barcelona were doomed to defeat before a ball was kicked at Camp Nou.
And yet, it’s not the end of the world.
“On the subject of whether German football is better than Spanish, I do not think that it is fair to base that on two ties, but Bayern—just like Dortmund—are worthy finalists,” added Xavi. “This Barcelona team has a future. I am always optimistic. This team can go on.” (Uefa.com)
It certainly can, provided the lack of depth—especially in defense—is addressed in the summer and Messi is treated like a human being instead of a robot next season.
There remains exceptional, world-class quality in the Primera Division champions-elect, but unless they learn from the mistakes of this season, Barcelona will again put themselves at risk of a humiliation similar to the one they are presently trying to forget.