Wednesday May 6th, 2015

Thank goodness these two can do it all again next week.

An astonishing, breathless first leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinals between Barcelona and Bayern Munich ended with the Lionei Messi-led hosts winning 3-0 and with the promise that in six days we can enjoy it all again–although in a different way.

Bayern Munich was indebted to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for keeping things level in the first half, and though the German champion had chances in the second period, it was undone by three minutes of genius by Messi, the player that Pep Guardiola turned into the best in the world. Maybe the best of all time.

This is what caught our eye from a game that will live long in the memory

Messi makes the difference

“You can’t stop him, he’s unstoppable,” said Pep Guardiola before the game, his first back at Camp Nou.

“It’s one thing to know how to stop him,” Xabi Alonso said, “But then you have to be able to actually do it.”

As it turned out, Bayern Munich could not stop  Messi at Camp Nou. The opposite, in fact; Neuer had kept Bayern in the tie in the first half, making six saves and standing up tall to Luis Suarez and Dani Alves in one-on-ones. Even in the second half, Bayern looked relatively safe, with Neuer dashing well off his line to stop Neymar from a breakaway.

Planet Futbol
Watch: Lionel Messi seizes control for Barcelona with two sublime goals

With 15 minutes left to play, it was 0-0 and while that result might not have been ideal for Guardiola, it was about to get a whole lot worse. A series of failed clearances on the left side meant the ball broke to Messi, who dashed to the edge of the area and powered a left-footed shot past Neuer’s near post. The reaction of both men summed up the surprise of the goal. Since when does anyone beat Neuer at his near post? 

Messi jumped for joy and was mobbed by his teammates, Neuer leapt up and berated his defenders for ceding possession so easily. That was the moment Guardiola elected to go all-in. He could have folded, taken the 1-0 loss and tried to claw it back in Munich. But since when has this coach, the most inspiring and influential of his generation, ever done that? Instead he pushed for the away goal and was punished. This time Jerome Boateng was on the receiving end, Messi twisting him like a corkscrew and leaving him flat on his back before chipping the ball over Neuer from eight yards out. Since when does anyone chip Neuer and score?

It was that kind of night for Messi, and there was still time for one last salvo, as Bayern’s shape went, the Argentine put Neymar clean through on goal and he slotted it past Neuer to kill Guardiola’s homecoming. Even at 2-0 down, Bayern had a small chance. At 3-0, it has very little.

When at Barcelona, Guardiola once responded to a fan’s awestruck response to Messi’s brilliance by saying: “Yep. If it hadn’t been for Messi, I’d be a third division manager.”

And don’t forget this was a Messi that was on collision course with coach Luis Enrique during the winter break. It was Cristiano Ronaldo that affected the change: when he won the Ballon d’Or in January, he said he wanted to win another one to match Messi's career total of four. Messi was not happy, and a truce was agreed that the team would help him beat Ronaldo to the next award–but the only way that could happen was if Barcelona won everything in sight.

If he continues this form for the last five games of the season, the title is as good as his.

The tactical battle

Was the switch pre-planned? Was it a mistake, or a master plan? To start with, Barcelona must have thought its luck was in, as Bayern Munich went man-for-man all over the pitch, and three-vs.-three with a high press at the back, against a forward-line that had scored over 100 goals already this season.

It meant one successful one-two and one of the strikers was clean through on goal, as Suarez was after 12 minutes. Not long after, Neymar missed a glorious chance, and then came Dani Alves’s effort. A Suarez header flew over the bar and the tie could have been all over in the first 15 minutes.

Perhaps the early risk was pre-meditated, as Guardiola did something similar with Barcelona in a game against Real Madrid in 2011. As it was, the last 15 minutes were decisive, and it will be Guardiola’s choices in that period that will dominate this post-mortem.

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His tactics late in the game–when he ordered his team to push for an away goal, as though it was the most important thing–cost Bayern dearly. A 3-0 deficit against Barcelona in this form, is nigh on impossible. There is a fine line between genius and madness, between bravery and naivety, between romance and pragmatism: was Guardiola blinded by his philosophy because he was "back home?"

He would say he’d rather lose like this than win another way. There is a happy medium, but he’s just not found it.

How the second leg shapes up

Can Bayern reverse this defeat in six days? After all, in the last round it lost 3-1 to FC Porto in the first leg, and scored five in the return leg in the first half before winning 6-1. The short answer is: highly unlikely.

Barcelona is not FC Porto, Bayern did not get an away goal, and without Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, the men who played such a big part in beating Barcelona in the 2013 semifinal, Guardiola’s task is a tough one. The critics will point to semifinal defeat to Real Madrid last year and this defeat, as the defining games in his reign as Bayern coach. He would prefer the 7-1 win in Rome and the 6-1 against FC Porto. 

Planet Futbol
Watch: Neymar converts breakaway to put Bayern in three-goal hole

Over on the Barcelona side, this result and performance marks a stunning turnaround for Luis Enrique, whose name was chanted by the fans in the second half. He was close to the sack in January, but now is on course for a treble (league, Champions League, Copa del Rey). The last coach to do that at Barcelona was Guardiola in 2009. The last coach to do that in world football was Jupp Heynckes, with Bayern Munich, in 2013.

However you spin it, this was a terrible night for Guardiola. Barcelona has to be the favorite whoever it faces, assuming it reaches the final: Catalans will want to beat Real Madrid, in what would be the first Clásico European Cup final. But for its fans in Uruguay, they may prefer to face Juventus, for whom Giorgio Chiellini and Patrice Evra, two former nemeses of Luis Suarez, play. Now that would be tasty…

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