Frustration. Anger. Embarrassment. And the biggest of all, Disappointment.
FC Barcelona fans must be going through many emotions after their heavy 7-0 aggregate mauling by FC Bayern Munich. The fans of the German team, and even those of their German rivals – who they will meet at Wembley later this month – and pretty much every German fan out there, must be ecstatic. They have a reason to celebrate, and rightly so. Two German heavyweights challenging for the ultimate European crown.
But this post is about FC Barcelona. About venting out my frustration. And about trying to find logical reasons for Barca’s humiliating exit from the race for European glory.
First of all, congratulations to FC Bayern Munich. They played well. They won. Period. And recent history suggests that whoever beats Barca in the Champions League knockout stages ends up winning the trophy. So I might as well congratulate Bayern on winning the Champions League already.
Now, to Barca. What happened? Were Barca really so poor? Did they deserve to lose so badly? Is this the end of tiki-taka and the advent of a new German revolution? Did Vilanova get his tactics wrong? Why did Messi not play the return leg? Are Barca fans right in blaming the referee? Lots and lots of questions. Let us attempt to answer these.
First up, the atrocious refereeing in the first leg at Munich. Clearly, two of Bayern’s four goals shouldn’t have been allowed to stand. And the fact that these two goals came at very important junctures during the match makes it seem all the more painful and unfair to Barca fans. The teams went into the break with Bayern leading by one goal. As expected, Barca started off the second half well, trying to find that equaliser. However, Bayern somehow managed to get their 1378th corner of the night. Mueller headed the ball to Gomez, at which point Pique sprung a great offside trap on Gomez, which was clearly visible even to the viewers watching the match live in the television. How the linesman missed that is a mystery to me. Gomez scored with a volley. The goal was allowed to stand. Barca players went crazy. This goal changed the match. Barca now started to play under great pressure, and never really managed to get going. They weren’t able to attack properly, but at least managed to defend well. Sure, there were times when the Barca defense resembled a group of stray puppies teetering around the box. The incredible Valdes came to the rescue at such times. After some time, Robben received the ball on the right, and began taking touches to control the ball to be able to take a shot. Alba came running back and was just about to tackle/block/intercept Robben’s cross/shot when Mueller came running at him and fell him. He wasn’t going for the ball. He was going for the man. Alba fell, Robben scored, Barca went 3-0 down. Again, how it wasn’t adjudged a foul is beyond me. The match was never a competition anymore, and Barca ended up conceding one more. It wasn’t just the goals themselves, but the psychological effect these unfair goals had on the Barca players that determined how they played out the rest of the contest, or rather, the no-contest.
Sure, detractors point to the early handball by Pique in the box which the referee missed. Well, the handball was unintentional. In such cases, it is upto the referee whether or not to award a penalty, and more often than not it is not awarded. Also, even if the penalty had been awarded, Barca would have at least had the opportunity to stop the goal. Bayern, on the other hand, were ‘awarded’ two goals unfairly with Barca having no opportunity to do anything about it. Also, this incident does nothing more than to reinforce my claim that the refereeing was, in general, atrocious. Other incidents of note include a yellow to Sanchez while seeming to softly foul Robben, when in fact, Robben had dived, and deserved the yellow himself. Also, Iniesta was awarded a yellow for a very minor foul, while Schweinsteiger wasn’t booked in spite of persistent fouling throughout the match. These incidents highlight the inconsistency in the refereeing standards on the night. To what extent this awful refereeing affected the tie is anyone’s guess, but it surely gave Bayern an unfair two-goal advantage and sabotaged any real hope of a Barcelona comeback. Barca deserved to lose on the night, but only 2-0, not 4-0, which would have been challengeable in the return leg.
Now, time to blame Tito Vilanova. Before I begin, let me say that he is a master tactician. In fact, he was the brain behind many a tactical battle won during the Guardiola era, for which he doesn’t get enough credit. He made a few mistakes this time around, though. The biggest mistake was playing Messi in the first leg, and then not playing him in the second leg. I like to believe that Barca is not over-dependent on Messi, and are capable of destroying any side in the world without Messi. (The PSG return leg didn’t help make my point!) This might not be entirely true, but as the manager of the team, this is what Vilanova must believe, and make others believe too. When Messi got injured and couldn’t play, he should have been given enough time to recover. He shouldn’t have started the first leg in Munich. Vilanova should have had the courage to send out a Messi-less team, and to believe that this team had what it takes to defeat Bayern. The idea that Messi is extremely important to the team has been, perhaps falsely (I like to believe), inculcated into the minds of everyone, including the players themselves, as was evident from some of their press statements after the PSG return leg. This makes the other players lose confidence when Messi is not playing alongside them, and become over-confident and over-reliant on Messi when he is playing. I think players like Villa, Pique and Fabregas genuinely believe that without Messi, Barca loses its mojo, and hence fail to perform without him in the big games, since in the back of their minds, they are missing him. On the other hand, players like Sanchez, Tello and Thiago take matters into their own hands when Messi isn’t playing alongside them, and end up producing magnificent performances; something I’d like to see from every Barcelona player in every match.
Okay then. Vilanova didn’t have the courage to send out a Messi-less starting XI in the first leg. End result? Injury aggravated, couldn’t play the second leg at all. What else did Vilanova do wrong? Substitutions. There was only one substitution in the first leg. Villa came on for Pedro in the 83rd minute, after Barca had gone 4-0 down. No other subs were used. Why? Vilanova was too afraid to change the system even while losing so badly. When plan A wasn’t working, he should have opted for plan B. Perhaps it might have worked. But he stuck with plan A throughout, hoping it would pay off. It didn’t. It was clear that Xavi and Busquets weren’t performing well. At the moment, there is only one thing Barca can use as plan B – counters. Thiago, Tello, Sanchez and Messi have been doing many in recent league games. And fruitfully too. But in this particular game, Xavi killed off any Barca chance to counter by slowing the tempo and making a safe back-pass instead of an ambitious forward pass when any such opportunity arose. Also, Busquets wasn’t upto his usual standards defensively, and gave the ball away a lot. If I were Vilanova, seeing that the usual plan wasn’t working and Barca needed goals desperately, and that Xavi and Busquets were underperforming, I would have taken them off and brought in Tello and Thiago, and rested my hopes on speedy counters by the new look attack of Pedro, Tello, Sanchez and Thiago. Messi and Iniesta would have been responsible for midfield duties. But again, that’s just me. Vilanova would have done something else. But he should have done something. He didn’t. His reluctance to react tactically probably cost Barca the game.
So, were Barca hard done by? Did they deserve to lose? Maybe. Or maybe not. In an alternate reality, if Bayern were still only 1-0 up at 73 mins, having had the next two goals disallowed, maybe Barca would have upped the tempo and scored a couple themselves. They wouldn’t then have been under tremendous pressure for the return leg, and maybe would have made it to the final. I wouldn’t say Barca deserved to lose the tie, because we don’t know what would have happened had the refereeing not been so bad.
And now, the question on everyone’s mind. Does this result, along with Real Madrid’s ouster at the hands of BVB Dortmund, spell doom for Spanish football? Is this the inception of a new era of German football? I don’t think so. Primary reason being, Bayern Munich play possession football, very similar to Barcelona. Their playing philosophy is closer to the Spanish style than to the German style. Their defeat of Barca was a case of giving Barca a taste of their own Spanish medicine, rather than beating them with their own brand of new German football. Some other day, the same Barca side would be able to thrash the same Bayern side. So no. Spanish football is not under any immediate danger. We will talk when the Spanish national team is comprehensively beaten multiple times in a short span.
I would like to end by reminding everyone that FC Barcelona made the semi-finals of the Champions League for the sixth time in a row, a new record. This is no mean feat. And the fact the Barca couldn’t reach the CL final is being deemed as a season disaster in spite of (almost) winning the league speaks volumes about the high standards set by this club. Here’s hoping that Barca wins every available trophy next season, and wins another sextuple soon after.
Hope. Believe. Enjoy. And no matter what, Support.
FC Barcelona, més que un club.