As I sat, as open-mouthed as the rest of Europe’s football fans, watching Bayern Munich ambush Barcelona in the Allianz Arena tonight, one question flickered through my mind: could this result happen next season?
It may seem a little early for pondering the future, but this article wouldn’t have been penned tonight had it not been for Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller, with his second of the night, putting the tie almost undeniably beyond the reach of Tito Vilanova’s crestfallen men.
If we’re being honest, Bayern didn’t win 4-0 tonight with superior football. Yes, they were remarkable on the counter, but as usual Barca had the lion’s share of the ball. The only difference to their usual style was that the Catalans were forced backwards far more often by the indefatigable pursuit of Javi Martinez and Bastien Schweinstaiger in midfield.
Bayern secured this momentous triumph through their physical dominance. Barcelona never stop running, but tonight Munich never stopped chasing. Every time Lionel Messi touched the ball, there was Schweinstaiger or Dante to dispossess him while inflicting as much force as legally – often illegally – possible. Xavi and Andres Iniesta have had many nights of being roughed up in the last five years, but the likes of Muller and Mario Gomez gave them a night to remember tonight.
Power and size are at the height of this Bayern team. With the exception of their wide players, every man who stepped out for Bayern at the start of the game stands six feet tall and more. Dante, Jerome Boateng, Martinez and Schweinstaiger in the core tower over the likes of Messi, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez.
Coach Jupp Heynckes has set this team out in Europe to play to that strength. They utilised every physical advantage at every set piece and in every challenge, and by the last twenty minutes Barca’s little magicians were out of tricks.
Therein lies the question. With Guardiola in charge, Barcelona developed the rhythmic, patient, often stupefying passing game that finally seemed to fail them tonight. He inherited a squad built for pace and channeled that to the flanks while creating probably the slowest style ever to have dominated continental football. Defensively, Guardiola’s Barcelona relied upon chasing the ball and waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.
Will Guardiola attempt to replicate that style in his second head-coaching position, or can he adapt to a team constructed around a totally different way of playing the game?
Heynckes proved the value of his ideology tonight. Munich might have scored two suspect goals – I’m still not sure if Gomez was offside for the second, and Muller’s bodycheck on Jordi Alba should in a rational world be the final nail in the coffins of those pointless fifth officials. That’s almost irrelevant, though. The Bavarians would have won anyway.
With Barca facing a couple of selection issues ahead of the second leg (the inexperienced Marc Bartra will probably be needed at the back again, and Messi looked far from fit at times tonight), and Heynckes having found a way to persuade both Robben and Franck Ribery to track back exceptionally tonight, that 4-0 scoreline leaves no doubt whatsoever. There will be no repeat of the great escape against AC Milan in the last 16.
I have no intention of going all Clive Tyldesley at this point and gleefully proclaiming the end of the Barcelona era. This was one game against one of the two teams in the world (I’m sure you can guess the other) capable of dominating Barcelona, who still possess five or six of the world’s best players. There are gaps – they looked weak defensively in the absences of Javier Mascherano and/or Carles Puyol tonight, and Vilanova should surely have tried to change the game far sooner than with eight minutes remaining – but this is still Barcelona we’re talking about.
They just miss Guardiola.
Perhaps there is a little note of warning in that analysis for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness. Be careful what you wish for, and what you wish without. Heynckes has forged a near-unstoppable force here – it may yet prove unwise to dispense with his services so soon.