Pep Guardiola made two significant statements in his pre-match press conference before tonight’s Champions League semi-final between his ex-team Barça and his current team Bayern Munich. The first was that the game would not end without goals and the second was that it is impossible to stop Leo Messi. He was not wrong: but after 75 minutes and the score at 0-0 it appeared that perhaps Guardiola’s plan all along was to keep the game goalless. Then two goals from Messi in quick succession and an injury time goal from Neymar Jr earned Barça a very healthy 3-0 advantage to take to next Tuesday’s second leg at the Allianz Arena.
Both teams lined-up as had been expected. Barça in the traditional 4-3-3 while Bayern started with a 3-5-2 with Rafinha on the left of Benatia and Boateng in the German defence. Guardiola’s idea was to flood the midfield but his back three were soon looking vulnerable against Suarez’s ability to turn and clever movement. Suárez had already had a timid shout for a penalty after Boateng’s push and had also forced an easyish save from Neuer when in the 12th minute Messi’s flicked header from midfield sent the Uruguayan clean through on goal. Neuer came out to narrow the angle and Suárez hit his shot just too close to the keeper who stretched his right foot to save.
Bayern responded with Lewandowski glancing his header wide from Schweinsteiger’s cross but soon after there was a second clear chance for Barça. Suárez dribbled past Boateng on the right and crossed low for Neymar who was only denied a goal by Benatia’s knee deflecting the ball for a corner.
Guardiola had seen enough and he ordered his players into a 4-4-2. Rafinha moved to right-back with Bernat moving back on the left, Thiago switched to the left side of midfield and subsequently Bayern looked more solid. The visitors’ first decent opportunity came in the 18th minute when Muller sent in a dangerous cross from the right, Thiago was well placed to score but the stretching Lewandowski arrived first to prod the ball wide.
Barça continued to search for a way through but Bayern were defending more compactly now. Messi made one magical dribble between Alonso and Lahm but his shot went well wide. Alba sent in a dangerous cross that Boateng sent for a corner from in front of his own goal. Then from Rakitic’s corner, Suárez won the position but sent his header over from eight yards.
Bayern managed another attempt on goal in the 31st minute, but Thiago, after his trademark feigned stepover, failed to get enough curl on his shot and the ball drifted wide. However, Barça finished the first half the stronger side. Messi fired a decent free-kick but Neuer read it well to make the save look easy, then in the 38th minute Iniesta sent a brilliant chip into the box for Alves who chested the ball down before stabbing a shot that Neuer saved again with a stretched right leg.
Bayern will have been satisfied when half-time arrived with the score at 0-0. Barça had had the better chances early on but there was a slight frustration creeping into the Catalans’ game. Busquets was not allowed any space to build from the back while Neymar had been relatively quiet on the left. Of course there was always hope with Messi on the pitch while Alves was inspirational on the right, giving his best performance of the season so far.
In the second half Bayern’s back four pushed another ten yards to play close to the halfway line and the Germans succeeded in playing more of the game in Barça’s half. The possession overall was just won by Bayern (48%-52%), however, as we’ve occasionally seen from Barça away from home this season, Guardiola’s men used their possession as a means of defence. Ter Stegen only needed to make one save in the 71st minute when Thiago’s shot took a deflection off Iniesta but Bayern weren’t worried while the game remained goalless.
And goalless it remained as Barça’s attacks were limited by Bayern’s possession. There was a nice run from Messi and a cushioned return from Neymar but the Argentininan sent his shot straight at Neuer. The Bayern keeper also demostrated his sweeping skills, rushing from his area to intercept Messi’s chip for Neymar. Rakitic might have shot soon after, but he chose to pass to Neymar who lifted his effort over the bar.
Frustration grew for Barça, as demonstrated by Piqué and Neymar getting booked in quick succession. The minutes were ticking by and it was around the 75 minute-mark that viewers of Spain’s TV coverage will have heard commentator Michael Robinson say that Luis Enrique really had to put on a substitute now, he really couldn’t wait any longer.
The Barça coach had Xavi and Rafinha warming up on the touchline but he chose to wait. Barça had only scored four goals in the previous six Champions League semi-final games at Camp Nou and at this point a repeat of the 0-0 draws with Manchester United in 2008 and Chelsea in 2009 seemed very likely. Then in the 77th minute a Barça high press reaped dividends when Alves won the ball and after beating another challenge found Messi in the inside-right position on the edge of the area. The greatest player that ever lived controlled swiftly before unleashing a low firecracker that whizzed past Neuer at his near post.
The greatest player that ever lived? Is there really any doubt left? Three minutes later Messi scored again and this one will be remembered with the very best of the 407 goals he has now notched up for Barça. Bayern were now pushing even further forward and Jordi Alba led a break from the left, the attack broke down but Barça won the ball again and worked it forward to Rakitic. Rakitic gave the ball to Messi 25 yards out, Boateng came across to prevent Messi’s progress but the Argentinian’s deliciously subtle feint left the defender grounded. The greatest player that ever lived then finished with the sublimest right-foot dink over the advancing Neuer.
Bayern needed an away goal more than ever now and the Germans pushed players forward. Barça were looking very strong now in defence and in the remaining time there was just one effort from the visitors, a hopeful swipe from 25 yards from Schweinsteiger that flew well wide. Barça looked to play out time with Luis Enrique now using his substitutes to seal the result rather than to chase the game. With Bayern pushed forward there was danger still from Barça on the break and Suárez might have added a third but his shot was wayward.
No culé would have complained with a 2-0 result. Is there anyone one out there who wasn’t at this point just praying for the final whistle to come without an away goal being scored? Then came the icing on the cake in the final minute of injury time. Suárez battled forward to lead another counter-attack and Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli allowed an excellent advantage to be played when Suárez was fouled. The advantage for Barça was that the ball was arriving to Messi and he swept the ball quickly forward, sending Neymar through on his own, Neuer stood his ground but Neymar sidefooted his shot low past the keeper for Barça’s third.
Experience should remind us to contain our joy at such a victory. There are still 90 minutes to play at the Allianz Arena next Tuesday and Bayern have already demonstrated their strength at home in the knock-out stage this season with massive wins over Shakhtar (7-0) and Porto (6-1).
At the same time I can’t help feeling euphoric, it’s undoubtedly a fantastic result which moves us considerably closer to Berlin while the sweet taste of revenge for 2013 will stay with me at least until next week and if we don’t suffer a complete catastrophe in Munich it will remain a long time.
Sleep well culés, and sweet dreams! We can now afford to dream a little about the coming few weeks I’d say. I think it’s going to be fun.
Barça: Ter Stegen 7; Alves 9, Piqué 8, Mascherano 7.5 (Bartra m89, –), Alba 7; Rakitic 7.5 (Xavi m82, 7), Busquets 7, Iniesta 7 (Rafinha m87, –); Messi 10, Suárez 8, Neymar 7.5.
Bayern: Neuer; Benatia, Boateng, Rafinha; Thiago, Lahm, Alonso, Schweinsteiger, Bernat; Muller (Gotze m78), Lewandowski.
Goals: m77 Messi 1-0, m80 Messi 2-0, m94 Neymar 3-0
Yellow cards: m35 Alonso, m46 Alves, m52 Benatia, m56 Bernat, m66 Piqué, m69 Neymar