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Barcelona no longer Europe's dominant force

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Lionel Messi and Barcelona head home for the return leg next Wednesday.

Gerard Piqué summed it up.

"They gave us a repaso, a going-over," he said, "they were quicker than us and better than us. That's all there is to it, there is no excuse."

In its simplicity, his analysis was eloquent: this was a hammering that brokered no argument and left no room for hope. Bayern Munich won 4-0, Barcelona's worst European defeat in 16 years.

All over the pitch, Barcelona's players looked shell-shocked, dazed and confused, ragged, like they'd been hit by an entire fleet of buses. The front cover of the Catalan sports daily El Mundo Deportivo summed it up: "Nightmare."

Their counterparts at Sport called it "the saddest night." There is no way back.

"We'll look for a miracle, but it is practically impossible," Xavi said.

Lionel Messi said Barcelona was "obliged" to try to turn it around. Obligation is rarely something embraced with enthusiasm or belief.

"If we did it against Milan, why can't we do it against Bayern Munich?" Marca Bartra asked, but deep down he surely knew the answer: because Bayern Munich is not AC Milan. Bayern is a superb side, and when it comes to the analysis of this game that is an element that must be included in the equation: this is not about one team but about two.

"We have to take our hats off to them," Dani Alves said. "They competed better: pace, height, rhythm, speed."

Bayern dominated from start to finish. Barcelona barely escaped its own half or the intensity of its opponent, first to every ball, swift to shut out the light. Bayern pressured high, and Barcelona could not find a way out: on those rare occasions when it did overcome the first wave, Javi Martínez and Bastian Schweinsteiger awaited. At the back, the two central defenders and the goalkeeper were rarely called upon, and the fullbacks became attackers. Ahead of them, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery ran at Jordi Alba and Alves.

Alves had suggested in the buildup to this game that one way to defend Ribery would be to attack him: "Let's see if he likes being forced back towards his own goal," he said. The opposite happened. Xavi had talked about imposing Barcelona's style; Bayern imposed theirs. When Bayern came forward it was a stampede, an entire herd running at a terrified defense. Bigger, stronger and quicker. But they were not just athletic, they were technically superb, too.

A final awaits Bayern, and it will be their third in four years. They were defeated 4-0 by Barcelona in 2009; four years on, they have turned the tables. And they are getting stronger: Tuesday, Bild announced the signing of Mario Gotze from Borussia Dortmund for ?37 million. Pep Guardiola is coming to be the coach in the summer. The response, for many, was obvious if rather facile: what for? Can this side really be improved? Gary Lineker noted:

"Only one of these sides needs Pep Guardiola ... and it is not Bayern." There was something about this result, about an insipid and impotent performance, that said more than just a defeat: The headline on the front of AS called it "Fin De Ciclo," the end of an era. They have been announcing the end of Barcelona's era for some time now, and this Saturday the Catalans may well clinch the league title with five games to spare, so it may be best to treat that gleeful pronouncement with caution. But this was, as Marca's headline put it, "a historic beating."

LYTTLETON: Bayern Munich takes the torch

El País noted that Barcelona dreamed of another trip to Wembley but that instead it was like another trip to Athens. The Dream Team, the Barcelona side against which all others are measured, the one that this generation of players surpassed, won the club's first European Cup at Wembley in 1992.

When they reached a second final two years later, in Athens, they had just won the league title, and Milan awaited. Barcelona was favored, but Milan hammered them 4-0. That night, too, they were completely overrun, blown apart. It signaled the end of an era.

This result does not need to. At least in the sense of a collapse. This probably is the end of an era in which Barcelona was considered the favorite every match, Europe's dominant force. Not least because Bayern and Real Madrid, clubs of huge resources and talent, have strengthened. That a run like that comes to an end of sorts is natural; nothing lasts forever. But, assuming they correct their mistakes, they will continue to be one of the favorites.

After all, this is a side that has reached six European Cup semifinals in a row -- a unique feat. They will reach more. Barcelona lost their heads after the 1994 final and entered into a spiral of internal battles and terrible decisions. The current sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, was the goalkeeper then: he was told that he was not continuing at the club on the bus to catch the plane home. A handful of other players followed him out the door and eventually Johan Cruyff would go, too, storming out after a blazing row one spring morning. The divisions felt in Barcelona can in part be traced to that moment.

The test for Barcelona is not to fall into the same trap. Xavi has talked about the result being an impostor, that the identity must remain. This is a test of that resolve; if Barcelona is convinced that the basic philosophy is correct, they must back it, really believe in it. It is easy to believe when you are winning; what matters is how you react in defeat. Some have doubts when it comes to president Sandro Rosell.

This defeat does not mean the defeat of a philosophy, necessarily. It may mean quite the opposite: that Barcelona failed to implement that philosophy successfully this season. They did not have the competitive edge that (also) defined them, the speed and intensity, the hunger. They did not have the variety either. As one Spanish writer put it succinctly: no one plays like Barcelona played, least of all Barcelona. Mistakes have been made. Some of them so simple as to be startling: was it really that hard to identify and sign a center back?

Details have gone against Barcelona, too; they have been desperately unlucky. Their coach suffered cancer, and so has Eric Abidal. Three center backs were absent. Fatigue gripped. Sergio Busquets was injured. So was Messi. Messi's father had initiated that he was not ready, said the former director Josep María Minguella. Barcelona has become so dependent upon him that in his virtual absence, there was nothing. Where's the Thierry Henry or Samuel Eto'o ... or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even?

Those are all factors that matter, that help to explain this result. As does the brilliance of Bayern (who knows, they might have hammered any team on this form). Some are chance, some are fate, but you do not lose 4-0 entirely by accident, and there have been hints that a defeat was coming. Maybe not one this big, but a defeat.

Josep María Casanovas writes in Sport that this was an "unrecognizable" Barcelona. Measured against the last four years, he is right; measured against Barcelona in 2013, maybe he is not. In the Champions League, Barcelona has five wins, (three of those in September and October), three draws and three defeats. Its knockout phase record reads: lose, win (brilliantly against Milan), draw, draw, repaso.

In truth, you could make a case for saying that they have not won a truly key, genuinely testing match this season: they have drawn and been defeated by Real Madrid in the league and been knocked out by them in the Spanish Copa del Rey. This was the latest defeat, another knockout. The most painful of all. Piqué summed it up: this was a hammering.

CREDITOR: Americans abroad eye playoffs, promotion

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