Of all the narratives leading into this extraordinary match of football, the one that only a few dared to utter was the simplest one: FC Barcelona is the best team in Europe on form right now, so they would be favored.
It was a weird thing to say, as most of the pre-match buzz was about the Bayern coach, Pep Guardiola, and his homecoming, his genius, his devising some sort of a way to make his Bayern team capable of snookering the best footballing side in Europe. Football writers who should know better said they believed Bayern were favorites, because of a belief in the coaching quality of Guardiola.
As a consequence, very little of the pre-match talk was about Luis Enrique and what he has done this season, for a number of very simple reasons, most having to do with tenure. Enrique bounced around leagues, from Roma to Celta to Barça, while his bench counterpart was a certified Barça legend who is working on becoming a certified Bayern legend. It’s easy to see, given what people persist in saying about Enrique and his charges — that it is the charges who are getting it done while a coach is along for the ride — where the focus would be.
When Enrique said that this wasn’t about Guardiola, or Thiago or any sort of homecoming but Barça vs Bayern, he exuded a pragmatism, the same stolid, verging on dull matter-of-factness that has permeated his team. And when it came time for that group of players to take the pitch, it was just football. No narratives, no genius coaches, no midfielders who spark contentious debates. It was just football, again of the sort that doesn’t really concern itself with the opponent.
Bayern could have been anyone, except for the fact that they tried to play toe-to-toe with Barça, even employing a three-man back line before Guardiola, sparked by chance after chance, decided it was time to return to tradition, to stop taking the risks that threatened to end the tie by halftime.
It was a frenetic match of football, end-to-end action as two teams contended for a shot at the ultimate prize. The odd thing was that Bayern was considered the strongest, most cohesive team, that Barça was this collection of dudes, fronted by three of the best attackers in the world, so yeah. But Barça, on a beautiful, electric night at the Camp Nou, showed that it was not only a group of talented individuals, but a team. They fought, they backstopped each other, they did everything right to ensure that the collective would, in its own pragmatic way, achieve success.
The 3-0 scoreline, even though the goals came late, was reflective of the quality that Barça displayed in this match. Bayern has injuries, missing the likes of Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben and Javi Martinez, to name a few. It says a lot of the quality of its coach that many still had them as favorites in this tie, one that isn’t over yet even as Barça have one foot in the final.
And as the teams squared off, two dynamic midfields anchored by a press and crazy-high back line, they at times seemed mirror imagoes of each other, until a curious thing happened: Barça used its individual skills to become even more effective as a team. A midfield runner was greeted by a pressing Rakitic and Busquets or Alves. If he managed to get through that, the frazzled player suddenly came face to face with Pique or Mascherano, and the ball was prised loose. It was relentless, and effective.
Barça is widely thought to be the drama and flair of its front three, but it is just as much Busquets sticking out a telescopic leg to disrupt a pass, or Mascherano coming in to dispossess an opponent in a way that makes that player think twice about taking on No. 14. It’s Pique backstopping his mates and Ter Stegen making the right pass with an uncanny flair. It was about Raktic being omnipresent, about showing exactly why he was the midfielder that Enrique wanted, amid all the “Kroos, Isco, stupid board,” stuff that flew about.
Bayern didn’t have zero shots on goal because of individual brilliance. It was because it came up against a better team. Its coach might not be a genius but he is a pragmatist, who understands how to build a nasty collective in his own image. Simeone has a cult of personality in Atleti, and the perception of what Enrique has built at Barça is quite different, really, because so many people still don’t believe that he has built anything.
Until today. It took a glittering display such as today’s to make Enrique’s name rain from the Camp Nou rafters, to make culers who not that long ago were blasting #luchoout hashtagged indictments in social media are now believing that maybe, just maybe, he has something to do with that wonderful things that are going on at FC Barcelona’s football team. But the nastiest part of it is that he has built a team, the best group in Europe, who also have the best player in the game, possibly in history, as part of that team.
Messi scored a dazzling brace today, and they were wonderful goals. But for me, when Messi put Xabi Alonso on his butt with a tackle that was ajudged to be a foul, when he slid through the ankles of Phillip Lahm in an attempt to get the ball is when it was clear that Barça was not going to be beaten on this day.
Messi scores goals. But today he worked for and was part of the team. Not his team, but Enrique’s team. He did grunt work, played passes for teammates, tackled, tracked back and ran like a man possessed, like a man with memories of sitting on the bench and watching his friends and teammates get demolished by a rampant Bayern. And today, Messi was having none of it, on offense or defense. Messi is never, ever more dangerous than when he functions as a hard-working part of the Barça team collective. When he does that, Barça is devastating and impossible to stop.
Pep Guardiola was right, ultimately, when he said that Messi couldn’t be stopped, even as he almost certainly hoped that he was wrong, that there was a way to stop the greatest player in the game. And he came out with a high line, a defensive approach that people hailed as genius, and daring, but that he himself saw as something bonkers that needed to stop before Suarez started putting the ball in the net.
The first half ended 0-0 and there was anxiety about the missed chances. Before the match I was calm, and said as much, because of my belief that Barça is the best team in the world. When the goals didn’t come I said that they would, because the Bayern players would lose that half step that found them able to intercept passes and get in passing lanes, an edge that would be dulled. And so it happened. A brace for Messi and one more for Neymar.
Much will be made of Bayern’s injuries, of the missing players who made them, in the minds of many, this unstoppable European juggernaut. But I want to state, for the record, that this day was about the FC Barcelona football team. It’s about the coach who has forged them. People suggest that Dani Alves is playing better because of his contract being up, rather than because of the tactical adaptation that shrinks his sphere of influence, allowing him to be in better position to do his job, while allowing Rakitic to be a true box-to-box midfielder.
Alves harassed, dispossessed and made Thiago look ordinary, after Busquets took him on a midfield merry-go-round. And it isn’t that Thiago is ordinary. He is a wonderful player who had the great misfortune to come up against an unstoppable team today.
Was there something extra in the hearts and minds of the Barça players? They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel those kinds of things. The man who led many of those players to unparalleled glory was standing on the opponent sideline. A player who was a scourge at RM is now a scourge at Bayern. A friend and former teammate is in the Bayern midfield. The Barça players might be pragmatists, but they aren’t robots, even as they calmly dispatched what they knew to be an inferior opponent.
Manuel Neuer was spectacular in goal for Bayern, so it required special goals to beat him. And that team unleashed its genius, who rendered the world incapable of doing much of anything except muttering expletives, eyes agog. It took special goals to beat Neuer today, as all Ter Stegen had to do pretty much was stand around and cheer.
A great many culers wanted Barça to beat Bayern because it would exorcise the demons of Guardiola, to get the supporters thinking about the future rather than comparing everything to the past. And in the wake of the match there is some Guardiola revisionism going on, and people are saying things about a Barça legend. And that’s wrong. Guardiola said that he came to win, and you have to respect that. He trailed the teams and other personnel onto the pitch and quietly took his seat on the visitors’ bench, so as not to be a distraction on a day that should be about the teams.
And it was. Gloriously, it was, just as Enrique said in his pre-match presser, Barça vs Bayern. The two teams slugged it out in the first half but then only one of those teams could call upon a player who is capable of doing what Messi did against Bayern Munich. And he was, as his coach said, unstoppable. But Messi isn’t unstoppable because he scores goals. And I would bet my house that Guardiola meant, when he said — TWICE — before this match that Messi was unstoppable, that this performance was exactly what he meant. Because as a team player, Messi is pure. He just wants to win.
Messi doesn’t get mad because he didn’t score. He gets made because he didn’t win. He had words with his coach over a foul that should have been called in a practice scrimmage. Like Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who wanted to win everything — golf, cards, pickup matches, practice scrimmages — Messi wants to win, and he wants to win all the time. That means that he will do anything to make that happen.
What Guardiola meant, and feared, is that when you take a great player who is also at times a team player of unsurpassed quality and work rate, your team is doomed. The Messi goals were spectacular, but I will leave others to do them justice with verbiage. I can’t, really. It would just consist of me banging on my keyboard and uttering squealing noises. And even if I had the words to make a superhuman performance on a colossal stage make some sort of linguistic sense, those goals weren’t the most striking part of Messi’s game for me even as they were decisive in the match.
For me those goals were inevitable because Messi was a towering part of a titanic team. And it’s hard to imagine something more beautiful, more extraordinary than that.