Champions League: Barcelona through but Bayern looks like favorite - Sports Illustrated

Messi, Barcelona Go Through, But Bayern Looks Like the Team to Beat in Champions League

Bayern Munich showed no ill-effects of a long layoff, while Barcelona rode some Messi magic to set the two powers on a quarterfinal collision course in Portugal.
Author:
Publish date:

What could have been a very awkward night for Barcelona ultimately became a stroll on the Camp Nou pitch, as it progressed to the last eight of the Champions League with a 3-1 win (4-2 on aggregate) over Napoli. In the quarterfinals in Portugal next week, Barcelona will face Bayern Munich, which, 3-0 up after the first leg, was never going to have a pressure-packed night and wound up beating Chelsea, 4-1, to cement a 7-1 aggregate thrashing.

Napoli had actually begun quite brightly, smartly enough to raise all the familiar doubts about Barcelona’s midfield, but abysmal defending (and the benefit of an uncalled push-off) during a 10th-minute corner kick allowed Clement Lenglet to give Barcelona the lead. Lionel Messi added a second 13 minutes later with a characteristically–for him–brilliant dribble and finish

Messi then had a goal ruled out for the sort of borderline handball that would have never been awarded in the days before VAR. A subsequent Luis Suarez penalty, though, awarded after a clumsy hack by Kalidou Koulibaly on Messi after the Argentine had caught him from behind in the Napoli box and nicked the ball off his toe made it 3-0 on the day.

A soft penalty converted by Lorenzo Insigne just before halftime gave Napoli a glimmer of hope, and as it had at the beginning of the first half, there were times in the second half when it threatened to expose Barcelona. In part, that was Barcelona easing up–Gerard Pique could clearly be heard shouting that “there’s still a game on here”–but it was also a reminder of the problems Barcelona has had this season. Napoli, unusually for an away side at the Camp Nou, had long spells of possession, and at 3-1 there was never a sense that Barcelona was entirely secure: even with a raft of players unavailable, that must be a concern.

It is not a cohesive side. Antoine Griezmann has not found a way to settle into the forward line with Messi and Suarez. The midfield frequently ends up stretched. Any side that contains Messi has a chance in any game, because he is capable of doing the most extraordinary things; his goal here hardly registered as brilliant because everybody is so used to him doing that, but it was, indeed, a moment of brilliance. But any side that includes Messi will also have structural problems because, at 33, he barely runs as he used to.

Messi-Lewandowski-Champions-League-Barcelona-Bayern-Munich

Certainly if Barcelona is seriously to trouble Bayern, it will have to be far better than this. Bayern’s win over Chelsea was essentially a high-grade training session. Having played its final league game three weeks ago and having wrapped up the Bundesliga title some time before that, it needed to take the game seriously to get back to something like full match sharpness before the final-eight competition begins in Lisbon, Portugal, next week. 

Chelsea, a beaten side, and exhausted after its exertions at the end of the Premier League season and defeat in the FA Cup final–a game that cost it Christian Pulisic, Cesar Azpilicueta and Pedro to injury–was essentially going through the motions, something indicated by a lineup that included Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham.

It didn’t take long for Bayern to assert its superiority, taking the lead after seven minutes as Willy Caballero, preferred again to Kepa Arrizabalaga, took down Robert Lewandowksi, who converted from the spot. What followed was almost embarrassing dominance from Bayern, which fully lived up to its status as tournament favorite. A second goal arrived on 20 minutes, as Mateo Kovacic was dispossessed by Thomas Muller, who laid in Ivan Perisic to score. Chelsea’s own pressing has been a problem all season; this was a masterclass in how to do it.

Abraham did pull one back just before halftime, and Chelsea stuck doggedly to its task, but with 14 minutes remaining, its defense disappeared almost completely as Lewandowski crossed, leaving Corentin Tolisso to nod in unmarked. A fine header then gave Lewandowski his second. Two goals and two assists offered a reminder, if any were needed, of just what an exceptional center forward he is.

For now, Bayern looks like the team to beat. It may have had a scruffy start to the season under Niko Kovac, but since he was replaced by Hansi Flick, the change has been remarkable. It presses superbly, attacks and counterattacks with pace, and has in Lewandowski probably the best center forward in the world at the moment. It had been thought Bayern’s main problem, particularly given the draw has been tough with Barcelona and potentially Man City the opponents before the final, may be sharpness having finished its season so long ago. That did not seem to be a problem against Chelsea, and the other seven clubs in Portugal, starting with Barcelona, must be on notice.