If last night’s 3-0 hammering at home to Bayern Munich spelt the end of Barcelona’s ‘cycle,’ as Sky Sports’ Gary Neville has likened it to in recent weeks, then the end of the Catalan side’s time at the top of the game was one of the most brutal imaginable.
Be it the 4-0 masterclass that Fabio Capello’s Milan side handed out to Barcelona in Athens back in 1994, or the men from the Camp Nou’s deadly ‘carousel’ that humiliated Manchester United over two Champions League finals, the Spanish club know better than anyone that the changing of the guard in European football very rarely tends to be anything short of explosive.
Yet even when held up against some of the more comprehensive beatings we’ve witnessed in recent European competition, there’s felt something particularly illuminating about the nature in which Bayern Munich deconstructed Tito Vilanova’s side a staggering 7-0 over the course of two legs.
Brutally efficient, unrelenting in their supremacy and seemingly able to rubber stamp their performances with a sprinkling of stardust, for all the talk of German efficiency and physical domination, there was something very Catalan about the way in which Jupp Heynckes’ side took Barcelona apart last night; maybe not so much in the mechanics of their play, rather in the way they went about the task in hand.
And after all but confirming what felt like something of a formality – bar a very nervous last five minutes in Madrid for Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side on Tuesday night – we now look ahead to the first all-German Champions League final in Wembley on the 25th.
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For some on these shores of course, once the initial nationalistic pain of seeing two teams from the old foe battle it out upon English soil for Europe’s biggest prize subside, there is a far bigger insecurity to crop up out of the Bundesliga’s recent journey to continental domination. What’s happened to our own set of once-valiant sides in the Champions League?
After a campaign which saw only two English teams make the competition’s round of 16 and not a single entrant reach the quarter finals, many have been quick to write English football’s obituary within the Champions League.
Out of touch, behind the times and somewhat archaic in comparison to our esteemed neighbours on the continent – the column inches haven’t been particularly kind to Premier League teams in recent weeks. And on a superficial basis at least, while you must look beyond Fleet Street’s usual hyperbole to understand the point being made, it has of course been incredibly hard to argue with some of those points this season.
The simple reality has been that in comparison to the cream of Europe this season, English clubs simply haven’t been able to hold a torch to the real, elite performers when they’ve been at the top of the game and given our own domestic top-flight’s penchant for self-promotion, that doesn’t reflect very well at all.
Given the trade off we seem to have unwillingly made between the desperately poor fortunes of our national team in exchange for a scintillatingly brilliant domestic competition, when the wheels fall off the latter, such post-mortems generally tend to feel a lot more painful than they do in either Spain or Germany. But just because they’ve fallen off, it doesn’t mean they can’t be put back on again.
Neville’s recent sentiments about cycles within football and a natural lifespan for success and domination within the European game seem to have been taken at face value by many, but for as simple an observation as it may seem, perhaps it’s time we started buying into the concept that nothing lasts forever – be it success aswell as a lack of it.
Let’s rewind four years to the Champions League knockout stages of 2008: English football is arguably enjoying its most prominent zenith of modern times, with all four of its entrants into the elite European competition making the quarter finals. Three of those teams in Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool went on to make the semi-finals with the latter pair going on to compete for the trophy in the final in Moscow.
It was a year of blanket domination, albeit peppered by the beginnings of the Barcelona uprising. But if English football was experiencing its all-conquering high, then German football was most certainly at its nadir.
FC Schalke were the only German club to scrape through the group stages during a chastising campaign for the country’s clubs in Europe. Indeed, it was a year in which this season’s finalists didn’t even qualify for the competition.
Five years on however and the German footballing landscape has come an awful long way on since those dark days of five years ago, going on to not only dominate this season’s competition, but also sweep away a Barcelona dynasty so vaunted, it was difficult to see how their success was ever likely to be halted at one point this season.
Yet when you strip away the hyperbole, the headlines and the romanticism from the event, all we’re seeing is simply the end of one side’s domination and the start of another’s.
Premier League clubs have suffered a torrid year in the Champions League this season, compounded in no small part thanks to the futile performance produced by the benchmarkers in previous league champions Manchester City.
But although the road to redemption is one that tends to take several seasons, rather than several months, English clubs will be back.
Quite whether the lack of patience that exists within these shores will cater for that wait, however, is quite another story indeed.
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