It was an astonishing night of Champions League football in more ways than one. It was a night of retribution, comeuppance, tragedy and ecstasy.
For Barcelona, a club with a proud and storied history, it was the night of a low not achieved since the 1940s. For Bayern Munich, it was a vindication of the work the team has put in under new coach Hansi Flick to forge a devastating attacking game built on cohesion and fluidity.
But above everything else, Bayern Munich’s 8-2 rout of Barcelona emphatically revealed that football is a team game that transcends individual greatness even if the adversary is one of the greatest footballers of all time.
It was a night when Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s talisman and football wizard, bowed to the united brilliance of the team in white and grey and signalled the end of an era for the Blaugrana.
No, Messi is not past his prime even in the wrong side of 30, his brilliance in the La Liga bears testament to that. But even he cannot function among ruins, especially when he is up against a team playing attacking football from another planet.
Barcelona – Writing on the wall
Lionel Messi has been a part of the best football team in the world. But that team had a galaxy of stars including pass masters Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Remnants of that champion team hover in the ranks of this broken Barca side as well.
But Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique appeared apparition-like last night, off the pace and past their best years. As Thomas Muller, Ivan Perisic, Alphonso Davies, Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry and later, horror of horrors, Philippe Coutinho cut open the hapless Barca backline, one knew that an era was coming to an end.
The signs were there in the last two seasons itself when the 2015 champions imploded in fantastic fashion to surrender seemingly insurmountable leads in the second legs of knockout games in this very competition.
But Barcelona’s gameplan and approach had not looked as outdated as it looked on Friday night in an empty Estádio da Luz. The emptiness signified the hollowness of a style of possession-based, short-passing football that has gone out of vogue against the lightning-quick high press of their adversaries.
Time and again Barcelona tried to play out of the back, time and again they were caught out in dangerous positions. Towards the end, Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique and company had just given up the ghost as Bayern walked the ball into the net.
Barca, looked good on infrequent occasions on the ball but failed to penetrate the gaps behind the high Bayern backline often enough. They moved the ball too slowly, their style resembling the ghost of tikitaka that once ruled the world but had lost its tooth a long time ago.
Only Arturo Vidal, who ended the match losing his head, still believed they were the best in the world before the game, football had moved on.
Lionel Messi’s choice
What does Lionel Messi do now? For years he had carried an underperforming team on his shoulders, scoring all of Barca’s away goals in the Champions League in the last few years before Antoine Griezmann netted one in Naples.
Even yesterday, when Barcelona had found a little footing in the game at 1-1, Messi had been the architect of their best moves, cutting in from the right in characteristic fashion.
It seems ages ago that he had scored his latest wonder goal against Napoli last week, getting past multiple men to slot it home even while losing his footing.
One thing Bayern’s win symbolizes is the victory of a superior team over a genius individual. With the Barca board in a shambles and with their most expensive signings of recent times starting on the bench or scoring for the opposition, Quique Setien’s men had lost the plot even before kick-off.
Messi needs new personnel around him, will it be through an overhaul at Barcelona or will the impossible happen and Barca’s favourite child jump ships? Stranger things have happened before.
Also Read: The big Barcelona rebuild: But where’s the money or the long-term vision?