For once, Lionel Messi and Barcelona were not the main story after a Champions League game; on Tuesday night in Munich, the greatest team of its generation was outpressed, outheaded and outscored by Bayern Munich in an incredible semifinal first leg performance.
This was an era-defining tie, the baton being passed from Spain to Germany, and Bayern, 4-0 winner at Allianz Arena, is a worthy recipient. On this form, Bayern is in position to become the dominant force in European football, a status it seemed keen to nail down by announcing, on the morning of the game, the ?37 million signing of its closest rival Borussia Dortmund's best player, Mario Gotze.
There were outstanding performances down the spine of the Bayern team -- Dante, Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger never let Barcelona breathe -- but it was Thomas Muller who stole the show, scoring two goals and assisting (in a manner of speaking) on the other two.
When Muller opened the scoring after 25 minutes, stooping to head Dante's clever header across the face of goal, Bayern had already had one penalty shot rejected (it was to have another soon after, when Alexis Sanchez seemed to handle) while Arjen Robben, as early as the second minute, passed up the chance to square the ball across goal and instead shot stright at Victor Valdes' feet.
Muller was recently asked by Suddeutsche Zeitung to describe his game, and he replied: "Raumdeuter." It means, "space interpreter," and that clever reading of the game made it impossible for Barcelona to pin him down. It also backs up the comments of Everton coach David Moyes, who was amazed by Muller's ability to find space on a recent trip to watch the German champion.
"It seemed simple, but the simplicity made me say: 'How did I not think of it myself?'" he said. "On the way home, I said, 'I've just seen something that I have to add to my training, I have to teach my strikers.'"
"Thomas is highly versatile, although I think he plays best in the hole behind the strikers," explained his namesake, Gerd Muller (no relation), Germany's record goalscorer, to Bild. "What do we Mullers have in common? We both have a good instinct for goal, can shoot with both feet and don't hesitate in front of goal. As soon as I saw him after he scored for Bayern in its 7-1 win over Sporting Lisbon [in March 2009, Muller's European debut], I said, 'This boy is quick, has good technique and doesn't lose his head. He will be a great player!'"
Muller was crucial to Bayern's second goal as well: early in the second half, a simple corner floated to the far post, and this time he headed it back across goal for Mario Gomez to tap home, although he was in a marginal offside position. At that point, Messi was quiet, and Barcelona on its heels: Muller ran at the defense and fired just wide, then Robben cut inside from the right, released Franck Ribery, whose shot whizzed past the far post. Robben then headed Schweinsteiger's free kick wide.
Barcelona managed its first shot on Manuel Neuer's goal after 69 minutes: the misfortune of it was that it fell to Marc Bartra, whose snapshot from a corner was easily held (he missed an even better chance later on). Two minutes later, Bayern had scored again, another controversial goal but marked with quality as well. Ribery began the move, skipping past Alexis Sanchez on the edge of his own area and running 60 yards before squaring it to Schweinsteiger, who tapped it on to Robben.
The Dutch winger had been energetic all night, tracking the runs of Jordi Alba with a diligence rarely seen from him. For a change, he beat Alba on the outside, at which point Muller (again) took the defender out with a clear shoulder-barge. The referee ignored it, Robben then had time to cut the ball back onto his left foot and curl it into the far corner. It was another bad call by the official; Barcelona complained, but like its performance, it was futile.
It was to get even better for Bayern, when Ribery released David Alaba down the left, whose simple cutback was slid in by Muller to make it 4-0. Astonishing. The last time Barcelona lost a match by four goals was Dec. 3, 2003, when it was beaten 5-1 by Malaga. That was 492 games, five La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey wins, three Champions Leagues and two Club World Cups ago.
Bayern has broken all manner of domestic records -- winning, scoring, not conceding -- this season; in the last round, it eased past Italian champion Juventus. Now it has smashed Spanish champion-elect Barcelona. It will take something very special to beat Bayern in the Wembley final. And the prospect of Pep Guardiola inheriting a treble-winning side has become another step closer to reality. The changing of the guard has begun.
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