Three Ballon d’Ors and a half a plan
In a Champions League semifinal two seasons ago, also in Munich, Messi felt alone. He was injured, and without his support, none of his friends were able to make a difference. Two nights ago, 24 months later, Leo lifted his gaze and on the pitch with him were Neymar Jr. and Luis Suárez, two of the best footballers in the world, potential franchise players, and perennial Ballon d’Or candidates in any era other than this one, which is dominated by Messi and Ronaldo.
And there’s chemistry between them. The record-setting Argentine has gifted penalties to the young Brazilian, the current Golden Shoe gave him two formidable assists, and after having taken his double and with the contest all but closed, he sought out the prima ballerina so he could get on the scoresheet, too. Messi, Suarez and Neymar have conditioned the semifinal tie with Bayern Munich from the first to the last minute. Pep’s side was unable to contain them. Not all three, and for much of the two matches not even one completely. Luis Enrique’s efforts have paid off. Thanks to this wonder trio, Barcelona will play for the gold in Berlin, the only thing left is to know against whom.
Barça have reached the final having suffered relatively little, more so because of the magnitude of the opponents than because of the threat of elimination. Having fallen in Munich but scoring two goals, against a Guardiola-led Bayern side that faced an almost insurmountable comeback, and that despite the Allianz Arena’s push was never able to seriously threaten the Catalans. Bayern never had a functional plan to work the miracle. Their forwards outplayed the Catalan defense but at the expense of weakening their own backside. The Germans were able to find a constant source of advantages attacking Barça’s left wing, where Lahm, Müller and Thiago dominated Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Iniesta with Xabi Alonso’s support. Even Busquets was unable to contribute enough to contain the Bavarian forwards. Bayern maximized their advantage here and were able to consistently test Ter Stegen, who acquitted himself marvelously by making a number of spectacular saves and kept the Germans from getting their foot in the door.
However the other half of Guardiola’s plan, which he had emphasized in the run-up to the game as essential if they were to have any chance at victory, was an utter failure: Bayern’s defense remained its Achilles Heel and its downfall.
While Bayern’s right wing was populated by up to four players – Rafinha, Thiago, Lahm and Müller – the left was occupied by only two. Juan Bernat and Bastian Schweinsteiger were given the arduous task of trying to block Barça’s powerful right hook. The Valencian left back was in charge of pressuring Messi when the Argentine moved into a playmaking role, and Bastian covered his back. This enabled Rakitic and Dani Alves to find space and to build play with little opposition. Both the Croat and the Brazilian were superb throughout the entire semifinal and they played their parts perfectly, hurting their opponent and generating advantageous situations for their teammates reliably. Dani assisting the midfield and Ivan playing a much more vertical role, annoying Bayern’s left flank and helping set up the knockout punch from his three forwards. Barça had little trouble connecting with the attackers, and whenever they had the ball they created mismatches against a group of defenders that were far beneath them skill-wise. They played, they practically frolicked, and they enjoyed themselves against a defensive system that put up little opposition. Leo as the glue, Suárez as the dose of anarchy, and Neymar as the finisher.
The imbalance in Bayern’s plan and Barça’s forcefulness in front of Neuer left a second half with little to analyze. Pedro came on for Luis Suárez, Barça went into cruise-control mode, and Bayern rode Thomas Müller forward and threatened the Blaugranas repeatedly, although at that point the German side was running on little more than fumes. The substitution altered Barça’s disposition and contributed to the decline of their play over the final 45 minutes. Without their starting striker, Leo moved to the middle, with the Canarian occupying the right flank. Rakitic also moved deeper, positioning himself in parallel with Busquets, while Iniesta stayed forward as the sole attacking midfielder. Because of these changes and Bayern’s last-gasp efforts Luis Enrique’s side was left with practically no means to initiate play from the back while their opponents pressed heavily. After the Bavarians went ahead 3-2, the Argentine flashed a couple of times, if only to remind everyone that the game was no longer driven by the coaches’ whiteboards, but by the allure of Berlin’s Olympiastadion, beckoning in the distance.
Barcelona reach the final on a roll, playing their best football of the season and with their three strikers performing like virtuosos in an orchestra. And they intend to play the final having already won two trophies – they are committed to it.