After events such as Lisbon, one can always count on Shakespeare. Macbeth, sitting down in the morning for coffee and porridge after murdering the king in the night and having had a bit of verbal with the missus, is asked by fellow party-goer Lennox if he’s had a decent night’s sleep. ‘Twas a rough night’ replies Macca, deadpan. This is often used to teach the concept of dramatic irony to GCSE students in England, but if Shakespeare were alive today you’d probably prefer to just ask him – ‘You were taking the piss, right?’
It was a rough night for Barça, or an ‘unruly’ one, as Lennox himself described it, and Bayern Munich, though not intending to take the mickey, certainly took the last vestiges of dignity from the already worm-infested cadaver known formerly as Barcelona FC. Barcelona haters, and there are more than is popularly assumed, will have rejoiced at the evening’s events – but the institution, and the team that allegedly represents it, had it coming. It was the perfect storm, and they were unprepared – no rigging, no sails. The upwardly-mobile Bayern were on a long undefeated run with a league and cup double already in the display cabinet whilst Barça had already slumped their crest and were looking a tad depressed. The previous sentence can be used as an example of bathetic juxtaposition, if there are any literature students still out there.
But let’s stick to football discourse. One struggles to find a noun to describe Friday’s events in Lisbon. ‘Annihilation’, ‘massacre’ and ‘demolition’ come to mind, but I prefer extinction. It’s also a noun that Barça fans will prefer, because it describes a gradual process of death, not a sudden one. From the 16th October 2004, when Messi entered the fray as sub in the Montjuic Stadium against Espanyol (I was there, oddly enough) to the eventual moulding of the three horsemen of the football apocalypse (Xavi, Iniesta, Messi) it has taken 16 years for the paradigm to unravel, if that’s what paradigms do. Barcelona have massacred enough sides since then, reaching their apogee in the infamous phrase by Schuster in 2008 – at the time Real Madrid’s coach – that ‘no es posible ganar al Barça’ (it’s impossible to beat Barça). Schuster said this six days before the clásico, and it caused such stupor in the Real Madrid fan-base that the German was condemned from that moment on – but he was only pronouncing the unpronounceable. You just don’t say those things in Spain, but that was how it felt back then.
Barça have rubbed a lot of noses into the dirt since, particularly Madrid’s – and at times they have done it with a lack of empathy and consideration for their fellow professionals in general – although I would spare Iniesta the rod on that one. Quique Setién’s face last night suggested that he was thinking ‘no es posible ganar al Bayern’ but he’s wrong. You can always win against anyone. You just have to be prepared, and Barça were unprepared. They were unprepared tactically, and more crucially they were unprepared mentally.
Setién’s head will roll on Monday if not before, of course. He was always a temporary solution to a wider problem, and his strengths and weaknesses as a coach were already well-documented. Like Herod to Salome, President Bartomeu will offer Setien’s head on a tray to the Barcelona faithful, but they are unlikely to be appeased by the offering. Bart has not had a happy six years at the club’s helm, and whilst his reign has admittedly coincided with the decline of the tiki-taka Pretorian Guard, he has proved a poor planner, a hider from responsibility and somewhat opaque in his behind-the-scenes dealings. Nothing new, you might say, but the splendour of the playing staff before 2014 always saved the asses of his predecessors. Nuñez, Gaspart, Laporta, Rossell – it sounds like a roll-call from a criminal sect. ‘More than a club’ indeed.
And yet they’ve given us some wonderful periods, and helped to shape the game as it is played today. And when the dust settles, because it usually does, we may conclude that the current Barça aren’t actually so bad, and that this Bayern are not really so good. After an 8-2 result it is difficult to see the proverbial wood for the trees, but leviathans have a habit of remaining as giants, and it often takes a humiliation to set the ball rolling, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. Barcelona will slip into the shadows and lick their wounds for a while, and if they can get Pochettino or Koeman in to steady the ship then the path may be prepared for the return of the messiah Xavi – but none of this is inevitable. Assuming that Messi stays, one should not be blasé about the challenges that await a side with practically no midfield, their best forward a schoolboy, and their creaky defence exposed in the glaring light of Busquet’s sorry decline. Busi, the great protector, symbolised the extinction moment last night, trooping off to be replaced by Ansu Fati then sitting in the half-light of the empty stands, pale and thin-looking, staring into space remembering the good times.
How many symbolic acts were played out last night, to make a writer’s job easier? We could focus on Coutinho, of course. At 2-5 it was fairly heavy for the Catalans, but it was not a score to send the stocks tumbling. Against a side of Bayern’s vertical confidence, as a final score it would have hurt but not been life-threatening. It’s a score you might well have predicted beforehand, and it’s the same as 3-0. Somewhat damning but hardly tragic. Simply a further chapter in the Champions League failures of recent years – (Juve 0-3, Roma 0-3, Liverpool 0-4). Enter Coutinho, still the property of Barça, who proceeded to make the 6th, then score the 7th and 8th. Although we’re back to dramatic irony, there was something inevitable about it.
If I’m not mistaken, he almost seemed to be trying not to score the 7th – but it went in anyway, Ter Stegen reduced to a blinking rabbit in the headlights, dancing randomly along his line with that curious stuck-out-arse gait he employs, holding up his hands in front of his chest as if imploring a gunman not to fire. He was not to blame for the evening’s events, but neither did he cover himself in glory. Whatever – Coutinho has condemned his employers to an historic defeat. They had never before conceded 8 goals in European competition, and I believe it was in 1946 that they last shipped eight (to Sevilla). The chap who wrote the contractual agreement for Coutinho’s loan may now be regretting the absence of the ‘can’t play against us’ clause like the morning after a vasectomy. There’s no turning back.
And what of the game itself? Under analysis by an ever-growing army of keyboard sages, I’ll keep this view of the game brief. It was always going to be undermined by Setíen’s limited alphabet. The Cantabrian alphabet-plan stops at ‘A’ because he revels in the fact that there is no Plan B. In this sense he is a bit of a twit. Taking off Sergi Roberto simply exposed poor Semedo further (he’s still looking for Davies this morning), and Griezmann had nothing to offer mainly because he was given no specific orders – or if he had, they were conspicuous by their absence. The raging bull Suárez, who with every passing month looks tubbier, slower and more paranoid, at least tried to chase down Bayern’s defenders, all the time hollering at Griezmann to do the same – to no avail. Vidal hung around on the right, looking like something from a discarded Play-Station game whilst De Jong, who can defend but who was not bought to do so, remained so deep that he was fatally cut off from those he might have been contemplating supplying.
Messi was an irrelevance, because after the opening twenty minutes Bayern simply cut off the supply lines. It was hardly rocket science, because Busquets is no longer fit, De Jong is unsure of his demarcation and Riqui Puig/Ivan Rakitic – take your pick – were the players who could (possibly) have offered a life-line of possession. But they stayed on the bench because Setién saw it that way. Dembélé who? Ansu Fati and Griezmann simply faded away in the general vertical onslaught offered by the Germans. I’ve never been professionally employed as a coach, but it has always seemed obvious to me that throwing on forwards when things are going wrong is rarely a very bright idea – unless you get them to chase and harry. Barça had nothing in the middle last night, and Bayern just cut through them at will. If Man City make it to the semis, it will be extremely interesting to see how Guardiola plans it. He may get it wrong, but he will at least think about it. Setíen simply chucked his ingredients into the same large bowl that his head will be occupying some time soon.
To be fair to Barça, Friday’s result could also be considered in the light of the general failure of LaLiga clubs to make the cut this season (except Sevilla). It may have been Covid or it may be that the Celtic-Rangers aspect of the Spanish scene is finally beginning to take its toll on the ability of this auld firm to compete with spunky young squads of unfazed athletes who come out rattling their sabres. As Jonathan Wilson eloquently put in today in the Guardian, they are ‘insulated from reality as they swat aside most domestic opposition, only for their incoherence and complacency to be exposed when they finally meet decent opponents.’ That’s not entirely true, for LaLiga has some awkward customers around, but they’re just not encouraged to really challenge the hierarchy. The Spanish know their place, as it were. It’s partly cultural, partly political, but Wilson isn’t far away. As for youth, well, Bayern aren’t so young (28 average), but they’re not senile. Unlike Busquets and Piqué, they can remember where they last put their dentures. The Leipzig and Lyon squads have average ages of 24 and 25 respectively and they can run at you and press you all game. Real Madrid looked short of inspiration against Man City – although they were hardly massacred, and Atlético, so long the masters of the dark arts, were hoist with their own petard this time around. Who knows? The Bayern result might serve as the wake-up call, for Barça specifically and for LaLiga in general. I wouldn’t call out the lifeboats just yet, but the seas are definitely getting a bit choppier.
Twas a rough night.