Messi, Suárez, Neymar lead Barcelona by Bayern to Champions League final
There wasn’t much doubt after the way the first leg finished, but Barcelona officially eliminated former manager Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich from the Champions League on Tuesday. A 3-2 loss in the second leg after a 3-0 triumph in the first leg at Camp Nou sends Barça into the Champions League final for the fourth time since the 2005-06 season.
To cap off the 5-3 aggregate victory, Neymar scored twice in the first half on similar goals: Lionel Messi played through to Luis Suárez, who squared for Neymar to finish. The first was a tap-in at the quarter-hour mark, and the second came nearly 15 minutes later on a slightly more difficult shot to Manuel Neuer’s right side.
With the task completed for Barcelona, Bayern dominated the second half.
Robert Lewandowski pulled back a second for Bayern to level the match on the hour mark, and Thomas Muller curled a shot inside the far post with 15 minutes left. It wasn’t enough, but it did reduce the deficit to a more respectable two goals overall.
Here are three thoughts on Barcelona continuing on the road to Berlin:
Barça’s front three proves impossible to stop
Sometimes, it’s as simple as 1-2-3, especially when those three are Neymar, Suárez and Messi. Barcelona’s three-headed monster combined to create more havoc for Bayern’s back line on Tuesday after Messi and Neymar provided the goals a week earlier.
Bayern started brightly, as Mehdi Benatia headed home unmarked on a corner kick in the seventh minute. However, Barça never seemed likely to concede multiple quick goals, as Porto did in the quarterfinal after heading to the Allianz Arena with a lead.
Part of Guardiola’s attacking philosophy involves holding a high defensive line, but that can be problematic against such a high-powered attack. It burned Bayern on both first-half goals, as Xabi Alonso dropped very deep from his holding-midfield spot to support Benatia and Jérôme Boateng in central defense.
Luis Enrique’s tactics deserve as much credit as Guardiola’s deserve blame, as it was his change from the typical endless passing in midfield from Barça to a more direct style that enabled the front three to excel. It’s not that they hit the ball long and hope for the best, but it’s undeniable that getting the ball to Messi, Suárez and Neymar as early as possible usually results in terrifying situations for the opposition.
Assessing Pep after another semifinal exit
After the way Bayern lost to Real Madrid in the 2014 semifinals, Guardiola vowed never to deviate from his ultimate philosophy in big matches: “attack, attack, attack.” It was a similar situation as this year, with Munich missing multiple men through injury, but Real manager Carlo Ancelotti choreographed deadly counterattacks that ripped Bayern apart.
Guardiola came out aggressively against his former team in 2015, employing a wild one-on-one marking system early before rightly abandoning it. Even down 2-0 in the first leg, he continued to push for an away goal and suffered by conceding a third. He named an unchanged lineup for the second game and kept attacking. Had he pulled it off in either match, Guardiola would have been lauded once again as a genius without equal.
Of course, the manager is not without fault. His training methods need to be questioned at least a little for his injury track record since joining Bayern, and while none of his players question Guardiola’s revolutionary philosophy, he seems constantly in danger of losing their attention in recent weeks.
Still, even if this is the end for Guardiola, he’s done the job he was brought in to do. He won the Bundesliga at blistering pace, and he completed the third step of Bayern’s evolution in playing philosophy that started with Louis van Gaal and continued with Jupp Heynckes.
The Catalan coach shook the Allianz with his philosophy of positional play and won all but the Champions League.
That should be enough to keep him in Munich for another year—if he decides he wants to stay—but two successive exits at this stage of the Champions League will give voice to his detractors.
Barça enters the final as favorite
Regardless of whether Real Madrid or Juventus comes out of the other semifinal on Wednesday, the Blaugrana are in the best shape heading into the June 6 final in Berlin. A lot can happen in a month in terms of form and injuries (not to mention a potential Spanish league work stoppage), but as the likely La Liga champion and the best team in Europe since the New Year, it’s hard to look past Barcelona.
After tweaking the team’s tactics to ensure his best players have the best chance to succeed, Enrique has managed to keep them all healthy and happy. That’s no small accomplishment at this level, considering the chemistry problems leaking out of Ancelotti’s dressing room and the pile of players still knocking on the Bayern medical staff’s door.
Of course, when all else fails, Barça can fall back onto the genius of Messi. The Argentine magician has singlehandedly destroyed teams all season, including Manchester City and Bayern in the Champions League, seemingly on a mission to prove that he is the best player in the world.
He’s well on course to win a fourth Ballon d’Or already, which would prevent Cristiano Ronaldo from tying his mark. A Champions League crown, perhaps followed by another strong showing with his country at Copa América, would go a long way toward sewing it up.