Bayern Munich 2 Barcelona 0
Perhaps the nicest thing you could say about Barcelona was that of all their recent humiliations against Bayern Munich, this was by some distance the least humiliating. They moved the ball with verve and purpose, enjoyed some excellent chances, looked at times like the old beloved Barcelona, with that vague whiff of sophisticated arrogance. Gavi and Pedri were two of the best players on the pitch. But winning the argument is a poor substitute for winning games of football.
Once Lucas Hernandez and Leroy Sané had put Bayern clear in the second half, Barcelona were again reminded of their true place in the order of things: a fallen giant still trying to relearn how to manage and navigate these games.
By the end, it was Bayern who were passing the ball around with abandon, boosted by a partisan crowd and a canny change in midfield at half-time.
Bayern may not quite have set the Bundesliga alight so far this season, drawing three of their first six games. But something about this competition and this opposition seems to bring out the mongrel in them.
Robert Lewandowski, for all his influence and industry, had a poor homecoming. The Barcelona defence, so good in the first half, switched off at key moments in the second. It wasn’t fair, in the strictest sense of the word. But in the long term, it may just be the result that Barcelona needed.
Lewandowski himself entered the arena to a cocktail of boos and applause from the Bayern fans, which felt somehow fitting. They respect him too much to hate him; they never liked him enough to exalt him; they fear him too much to ever be truly at ease with the idea of him turning out for someone else.
Barcelona, for their part, needed no greater motivation than the numbers eight and two: the result of their famous humbling in the 2020 Champions League quarter-final.
From the first few seconds they pressed and scrapped like a team with a grudge and a mission. The surface was greasy, the tackles were venomous and the early stages resembled not so much a game of football as a rugby league title decider: bodies flying everywhere, wave after wave of attack, long, raking diagonal kicks, desperation written into every deed. Bayern’s bloodthirsty press we know about; Barcelona’s, by contrast, has developed immensely in the last few months, a testament to Xavi’s coaching and increased levels of fitness.
And inevitably, it would not be long before Lewandowski began to imprint himself on proceedings. Amazingly, three good chances went begging in the first half alone: a poacher’s volley that flew over the bar, a close-range header saved by Manuel Neuer and a shot from 12 yards just before the break. He was ably supported by the resurgent Ousmane Dembélé, who re-signed with the club in the summer after an interminable departure saga, and who in his recent cameo appearances had offered glimpses of a return to form.
There has always been a player in there, a player who just needed a little trust and a little guidance. Xavi has given him the former; Lewandowski the latter.
And against opposition like this, where the first few seconds in possession are crucial, Dembélé's pace, audacity and ability to get out of a tight spot caused Bayern multiple problems. He might even have had a penalty when Alphonso Davies chopped him down on the edge of the area.
Keen to regain some control in midfield from the peerless Gavi and Pedri, Julian Nagelsmann brought on Leon Goretzka, who forced a good save from Marc-André ter Stegen at the start of the second half. And from the resulting corner, Bayern made the breakthrough to a rapturous, relieved roar. Hernandez tapped Marcos Alonso on the left shoulder, darted past his right and headed in Joshua Kimmich’s inswinging cross.
In a way, it was Bayern at their clinical, cynical best: a team that gently probes at your weaknesses, examines the lie of the land, and then simply finds a way.
Barely three minutes had elapsed when the scintillating Jamal Musiala saw a gap in the Barcelona back line and simply ran at it, gaining 20 yards. Sané collected his pass, ran at Ter Stegen and rolled a clever finish past his right hand. And for all their promise and invention, Barcelona had been undone by familiar failings: a defence still prone to fatal lapses in concentration.
There was still the odd opening for Barcelona: Pedri hit the post after a delightful one-two with Lewandowski.
But the intensity of the opening stanza had evaporated, and perhaps this was to be expected in the end. This is, after all, still a work in progress, a team largely thrown together in the summer, full of talent and promise. But as yet, nothing more than that. – Guardian