Maybe a little premature to suggest a changing of the guard at the top
Is there too much being read into the defeats of Real and Barca this week?
The Thursday morning headlines told the tale of two different football cities.
“Jaaaaa!” cried Germany’s Bild over a picture of Arjen Robben being mobbed by his Bayern Munich team-mates. “Deutsches Finale!” It was front-page news.
Meanwhile, in Catalonia, El Periodico carried a picture of four obviously downcast players leaving Camp Nou pitch at half-time the night before. Alongside Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas were the words: “Fin de trayecto.” End of the road. This was also front-page news.
Both headlines were accurate. There will be an all-German Champions League final at Wembley three weeks today and, yes, Barcelona had reached the end of this season’s European road at the semi-final stage.
So emphatic was Bayern’s triumph over Barca – 7-0 on aggregate – and so pale were the Catalans with an obviously injured Lionel Messi in the first leg and without him altogether in the second, that the temptation to read plenty into the soaring state of one – Bayern, the Bundesliga – and the decline of the other – Barca, La Liga – was there to be had.
The swashbuckle with which both Dortmund and Munich pasted the two La Liga giants on unforgettable consecutive nights in the first legs was almost as convincing as it was compelling. But it is an “almost”. That’s not to decry what the German clubs did to their Spanish counterparts but in the 10 days since there have been enough sweeping statements to fill a Mourinho Yearbook.
The tired, but even more tiresome line, about “things being cyclical” was trotted out. This fails to recognise human input, which seems fairly significant in sport. No, none of that, it’s cyclical. These people have not heard of Alex Ferguson, presumably.
Saying things are cyclical means not having to analyse, it means not having to credit game-changers, it means believing in the assumptions that you’ve just reached.
The assumption is that Germany is in the ascendancy. It is evidence-based in that Bayern have just drubbed Barcelona and Dortmund have eliminated Real Madrid. But what if Real had scored a third on Tuesday night? They had the chances.
What if Bayern’s crucial third goal in the first leg had been disallowed as it should have been?
Had a linesman’s flag been raised in the last-eight second leg against Malaga, Dortmund would not even have made the semi-final. (Yes, Malaga, too benefited earlier from a similar mistake).
The point is that assumptions are made on margins that may not justify the assumptions. There is surely a reasonable argument that says there are about 10 to 12 clubs across Europe that are comparable in terms of talent and potential achievement. On any given night, one can beat another.
On Wednesday night Barcelona finished the game without the following: Messi, Xavi, Inesta, Puyol, Busquets, Alba and Mascherano. Only Xavi and Iniesta had started the game. No-one serious can say that Barcelona at full strength would have lost 7-0.
Bayern have excellence in their team, that is without question, but then they did last season when they lost the final to Chelsea in their own stadium. A hard assessment of that outcome was that Bayern lacked the extra quality to win. A more balanced view might be that they had won on penalties in the semi-final at the Bernabeu and that these differences are narrow and “failure” must have context.
Regardless of what you think of Jose Mourinho as a man, he is proven as a football manager. To dismiss his time at Real Madrid as a failure – as some do in Spain – is to say that all but triumph is failure. Under Mourinho Real have reached three Champions League semi-finals in a row. On Thursday Marca dubbed him the “Semispecial One”.
But what if Real had won the penalty shoot-out against Bayern last year. Would that make Mourinho a better manager?
Chelsea, Bayern, Barca, Real, United, Juventus and so on. All have won the Champions league but not one has defended it successfully. The last club to do that – in old European Cup days – was AC Milan in 1990. The competition is hard-won and getting close – the last 16 in Celtic’s case, the last four in Real’s – is no failure.
Real and Barcelona do have concerns, though. Should Gonzalo Higuain be centre-forward at Madrid? Should Marc Bartra be playing centre-half for Barca, even when others are injured? More broadly, is La Liga suffering year on year from the Barca-Real duopoly?
When Glasgow’s Old Firm were still in power, La Liga was called “Scotland with sunshine”. It is a reason why the Bundesliga is said to compare so favourably.
But when Borussia Dortmund meet Bayern Munich this evening – quite a coincidence – it will be with Bayern 20 points clear of Dortmund and 26 ahead of third-place Bayer Leverkusen. Scotland with bratwurst.
All is not perfect in Germany, but Bayern Munich do possess such economic power, physical momentum and, with Pep Guardiola to come, they could dominate. But it probably requires them to win the Champions League, then defend it before we assume they are a cut above very good.