Barcelona stunned Bayern Munich with three goals in the final 13 minutes to take what will surely prove to be a decisive grasp of their Champions League semifinal tie. A riveting contest at the Camp Nou had somehow remained goalless until Lionel Messi brilliantly came to the fore, scoring twice in three minutes to put Barcelona firmly in the ascendency. Then with Bayern desperately seeking an away goal to take back to Munich for the second leg next week Messi sent Neymar into the clear and the Brazilian coolly slotted past the previously superb Manuel Neuer to make it 3-0.
The result was incredibly harsh on Bayern, whose positivity contributed so much to a contest that will go down as a modern day European classic. On his return to his former club, Pep Guardiola began with an incredibly attacking strategy as Bayern were left man on man defending against Barcelona’s sensationally in-form front three -- Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. A huge save from Neuer kept Bayern afloat in the early stages, before Guardiola readjusted and wisely moved an extra man into the back line.
The match ebbed and flowed engrossingly thereafter. Bayern could have gone in front through a mask-wearing Robert Lewandowski, while Neuer saved again with his legs, this time from Dani Alves. But ultimately it was the talent up front that proved the difference. Bayern were missing key wing pair Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, while Lewandowski wasn’t at his sharpest after breaking his nose and jaw just over a week ago.
On the other side, Barcelona had Messi back to his glorious best. Guardiola had said before the match that stopping his former charge was impossible, and so it proved. The first goal admittedly owed much to an error from Juan Bernat just seconds after the referee failed to produce a second yellow card for Neymar, despite appearing to reach for his pocket. Still Messi was deadly with his fierce finish from 20 yards. But if his first goal was good, the second showed just why he is the greatest player of his generation. Given the ball by Ivan Rakitic, Messi’s unparalleled quick feet left World Cup winner Jerome Boateng prone on the turf before the world’s best goalkeeper Neuer was befuddled by a sublime dink from Messi’s weaker right foot.
It was extraordinary from the Argentinean and Bayern were understandably left shell-shocked. Guardiola had said an away goal was required at his former home and Bayern were desperate for one in the final 10 minutes. But that urgency to push forward left them needing a miracle in Tuesday’s return match after Neymar went through to score in the fourth minute of injury time.
We will never know whether things would have been different if Bayern Munich were at full strength, given they were also without Holger Badstuber, David Alaba and had Javi Martinez fit enough only for a place on the bench. Quite possibly they would have been. But there is no doubt that on current form Barcelona are the best team in Europe and will now be confident not only of finishing the job next week but getting the better of either Juventus or Real Madrid in next month’s final.
It is cruel luck for Guardiola, not just going into the semifinal with so many injuries but taking on a Barcelona team playing better than they have done at any point since he departed the club in emotional circumstances three years ago. They are different now for sure, based more on individual brilliance than a team philosophy, but one crucial thing remains the same: the majesty of Messi.
By his ridiculously high standards Messi went through two down years following Guardiola’s departure, but, to the cost of his former coach, he is now s good and perhaps better than ever.
It was Messi’s header that sent Suarez away for the game’s first chance 12 minutes in, only for Neuer to come up trumps for the visitors. At that stage it appeared simply a matter of time before Barcelona would punish a Bayern team that were applying relentless pressure to their opponents high up the pitch but leaving themselves perilously shorthanded at the back.
Whether Guardiola had planned to change tact or he realized the error of his ways, Bayern did soon switch from three to four at the back. The recently crowned German champions were more assured thereafter and nearly went in front when Lewandowski just failed to make clean contact stretching onto Thomas Muller’s cross. After Neuer blocked from Alves at the end of the opening half, Bayern took the ascendency after the interval. But the lack of a game-changing player in attack meant Bayern’s forays forward lacked the bite to penetrate Barcelona’s back line. That they failed to register a single shot on target throughout the 90 minutes will be a major disappointment for Guardiola.
Still, for almost the entire contest both teams combined stirring intensity with exceptional technical quality. It seemed incredible that a match featuring such a combination of talent and entertainment could finish goalless. Messi ensured that it didn’t.
Bayern may have something to say about the first goal, with the already booked Neymar going down easily in the box and the referee seemingly considering pulling out a card. Instead Neuer took a quick throw out and within seconds the ball was in the back of his net. Bernat lost possession in the left-back spot to Alves, who found Messi inside and the forward did the rest with an effort that beat Neuer’s dive at his near post.
Three minutes later Boateng was embarrassed and Bayern were staring at a two-goal deficit. Perhaps that would have been retrievable, but a 3-0 hole, provided by the nervelessness of Neymar, is surely too much. On a great night for soccer, Messi showed that he remains king.