In Europe, Barcelona were immense, managing to defeat, a few times, a resilient Celtic who were immaculate at Parkhead. In 2003/04, Celtic beat them in the UEFA Cup; in 04/05, they won 1-3 at Celtic and drew 1-1 in Barcelona; in 07/08, they did the double over Celtic, winning 2-3 away, and 1-0 at home. This was the Celtic that had beaten United 1-0 at home and also Milan: in the 04/05 campaign, they lost to Milan 3-1 but drew 0-0 at home, and again, in 06/07, they held Milan to a goalless draw before going out owing to a piece of brilliance from Kaka, in extra time. In 07/08, however, they beat Milan 2-1 before losing the away tie 1-0, however, this season, for the first time in ten years, they defeated Barcelona, whose only other loss, was to Madrid in the Supercup. Although without their departed manager, Barcelona began incredibly, beating Madrid 3-2, before losing on away goals, thanks to a 2-1 defeat away. They won 17 of their first 18 league games, only drawing against Madrid at home. Their only other loss was to Celtic, 2-1, who they had previously only beat thanks to a final minute goal. In the league, however, in the first game of the second half of the season, they soon tasted defeat when, Real Sociedad came from 0-2 down to win thanks to a last gasp goal. (The last time that has happened was May 12, 2008, to Mallorca, during Rijkaards last game, and again, this was due to a last minute goal.) Later on, they lost to Madrid in the league cup, 1-3, and again in the league, 2-1, meaning they had failed to defeat Madrid in five attempts despite their previous fixture dominance. Between these Madrid defeats, they also lost to Milan, 2-0, losing their first game to them in almost 9 years. They were favourites again, however, against PSG in the UCL, there were warning signs with the team so lacklustre in the San Siro failing to inspire in the quarter final return leg, and only winning after Messi made a substitute appearance, and yet, Messi was in misery, with Barcelona at his mercy. Against Bayern Munich, a team they only beat 4-0 (5-1 on aggregate) four years earlier, they lost 4-0 away, and 0-3 at home. (Under Guardiola, they had not lost by this margin at home, or lost both legs of a European tie.)
In a couple weeks, Bayern will appear in their third final in four years. knowing that former Barcelona manager, Guardiola, will take over. In the UCL, they had only lost to Bate. (In the previous season, they lost 1-0 to a late Basle goal before demolishing them 7-0 in the 2nd leg.) For many, the signs should have been seen much earlier. Bayern beat the previously unbeaten Juventus, home and away. (Juventus had drew 2-2 in Chelsea before demolishing, 3-0, the European champs.) Much later, they hurt Arsenal 1-3 at the Emirates (Fortress Emirates had previously been cracked by Schalke, 0-2), before just scraping through on away goals, after their defeat, 0-2 at home. Coming into their tie against Barcelona, who had previously demolished Milan 4-0, they surely would have had some reservations. In the previous season, they had demolished German opposition, on aggregate, 10-2. This season, however, Germany was to reign supreme. Madrid were the first Spanish victims of this onslaught, losing 2-1 to Dortmund in the group, before just salvaging a 2-2 home draw. In the semi finals, however, they crushed Madrid 4-1, before succumbing to their first loss of the campaign. (In the previous season, the consecutive German champions, had finished bottom of their group, although this time, the Premiership Champions, Manchester City finished bottom of their group meaning they did not even qualify for the UEFA cup campaign.) Bayerns victory of Barcelona was immense (as emphatic as Germany’s 4-0 defeat of Argentina, and the 4-1 crushing of England.) Just as Ajax crushed Bayern Munich many years ago, making the 1974 World Cup Final (involving many of the club team players, that more tense, with Germany’s national team having so many Bayern Munich players, and Barcelona providing the majority of Spain’s first eleven, the result had much deeper ramifications. The Germany that had lost to Spain, 1-0 in the Euro Finals (2008) could at least taste some revenge.
Bayerns victory was comforting in an unusual way which needs context in order to be appreciated. In our time, we have seen three amazing team: Arsenals Invincibles, Madrid Galactico’s and Brazils Quartet. Madrid’s Galactico (2002-2005) were eventually disbanded when Zidane retired (2006), Figo left for Inter (2005), Ronaldo to AC (summer, 2007), Carlos to Turkey (2007) and Raul to Germany (2010). Barcelona won their first league title 04/05, followed by wins in 05/06 and 08/09, 09/10, 10/11. It was their first since 98/99 and heralded the rise and re-emergence of the Catalan giants. Although Madrid, for the most part, matched them during the Galactico era, with an incredible Midfield force and attacking threat, many have wondered if they would have had the prowess to withstand the force of this awesome Barcelona side. In those days, the likes of Zidane and Figo laughed and played around with Dinho and Deco, and sometimes even Iniesta and Xavi, and yet, that Barcelona side were very different from the side competing today. Even the present Brasil team (having played Barcelona in 1999) might just be embarrassed by this present side (as the Dutch dominated them in 1974) in spite of their claim to have reinvented the beautiful game, with delicate one-touch passing, finesse, flair and grace. Spain, meanwhile, have not lost a knockout game since France beat them in 2006, begging the question of midfield dominance? France’s team of 2000-2006 were viewed as a tour de force, much like the Barca-Beating-Bayern are, and yet, how would they have coped against the present Barcelona side? On the evidence of the performance the other day, seeing tactical awareness, positional discipline and collective athleticism, we might conclude that any team willing to challenge and compete against the fast-paced Barcelona team, would hit then when, and where it mattered.