The questions of whether or not such a season, with such an exit from the most prestigious tournament, is a failure or not, will soon come. Lionel Messi spent 90 minutes on the bench, next to a helpless Tito Vilanova, as they watched Barcelona crash and burn at the Camp Nou in what has been their most painful and humbling loss at the biggest stage of all.
It’s possible to talk of tactics and how the Barcelona pressing has deteriorated as the season went by, while the insistence of Dani Alves to be reckless on his win brought counter attack after counter attack against a faster, more physical side, but in the end, it comes down to this – Bayern Munich made the most of their chances in both matches, while being the better team in every possible aspect.
Barcelona didn’t seem ready for an opponent that was just as hungry and aggressive as it was in the first match. Vilanova started with David Villa and Cesc Fabregas up front, while Alex Song played behind Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Song hasn’t been a huge success in the chances he’s gotten to prove himself this season, and in the biggest match of his career looked miserable and out of position in almost every chance he had to make a positive play for Barcelona.
Andres Iniesta disappeared once again behind Javi Martinez, leaving Xavi without anyone to play off. Cesc Fabregas tried to make deep runs behind the Bayern defense, finding himself open more than once, but as usual in the big matches this season, couldn’t do the right thing with the ball on most of his touches. The most telling number about Barcelona’s inability to produce any sort of consistent attacking game? Barcelona’s most frequent passing combination was Marc Bartra to Gerard Pique, unlike Xavi to Iniesta, the one they really needed, which was the most frequent combo in their last Champions League final, beating Manchester United in 2011.
But a team built wrongly, around the best player in the world, can’t function without him. Their attack is designed on directing every ball towards him, everything to go through him. Without Messi, an internal organ is missing, and Barcelona are not even close to world class and the “best team in Europe”, a title they’ve held for about four years, regardless of if they’ve proven it or not.
Tito Vilanova had a bad year in his personal life, but on the football pitch it was different. Barcelona gained 55 points out of a possible 57 to start off the season, and wasn’t going to lose to league title without some epic collapse. Despite the clear slowing down period over the past few months, there’s been enough space between them and Real Madrid to ensure they won’t be caught.
But for Barcelona in recent years, the Champions League is the true measuring stick. Messi picked up an injury against PSG, and it turns out to be worse than initially thought. Vilanova decided he’ll use Messi only if his team somehow managed to put itself in a position to make some sort of late press against Bayery and turn the result. The problem is that the way this team is built, without Messi on the pitch there was no way of getting anywhere close.