“It’s shameful,” a shellshocked Gerard Pique said in the aftermath of Barcelona’s 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich. “Shame is the word.”
The sentiment was different on Tuesday, as Barca at least this time battled, but Bayern were comfortable again, 3-0 winners in the Champions League at Camp Nou.
The Blaugrana’s remarkable August 2020 humiliation was so significant because these sides were supposed to be rivals of a similar standard. Thirteen months on to the day, Bayern were backed to win big again. The only surprise was that Barca limited their opponents to three.
The Catalan club eventually heeded Pique’s calls for “changes at all levels” – new president, new coach, new team – but it is tough to sincerely suggest this is a better outfit, even if they have a little more fight.
While Pique was one of six players in the XI remaining from the line-up in Lisbon, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were among the five to make way. Antoine Griezmann, called off the bench in the quarter-final, has also now departed. Those three outstanding attackers accounted for Barca’s seven shots in that tie.
Instead, Luuk de Jong debuted on Tuesday, with Barca still searching for a post-Messi formula. Griezmann was one of two players to have moved on from Barcelona since starting their previous match at the end of August.
Perhaps Ronald Koeman deserves credit then for forging some sort of coherent unit in the interim. A three-man defence made Ronald Araujo a star in the opening stages as he battled Leroy Sane, helping Barca reach the 31-minute mark unbreached – the 2019-20 clash brought a record four Bayern goals in the same period.
But pressure was building and the breakthrough followed three minutes later as Araujo’s defensive colleague Eric Garcia turned his back to a long-range Thomas Muller attempt and inadvertently deflected the ball beyond Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Koeman, coach of the Netherlands when Barcelona were taking their drubbing last year, told this week of how “several players suffered a lot” in Portugal, possibly explaining a reluctance to come out of their shell after going behind.
Revenge had been on the Barca boss’s mind as he discussed looking “for our style to hurt the opposition”, but that felt optimistic here. Before and after the opener on Tuesday, Dayot Upamecano dominated De Jong and Memphis Depay, winning nine of 15 duels, making four tackles and four interceptions.
Bayern have now won eight of 12 games against Barca but rarely can they have been so clearly superior, not tallying an eye-catching score but controlling proceedings with a conviction that the five-time European champions lacked the attacking talent to trouble them. The hosts did not muster a shot on target in a Champions League game for the first time since at least 2003-04, Opta said.
That gulf should not have come as news to Koeman, even if he wore a concerned expression when Robert Lewandowski stabbed in a simple second, Alphonso Davies’ shot having been blocked and Jamal Musiala’s follow-up striking the post. Offering some of his more sobering thoughts earlier this week, Koeman had pondered: “Can you get back to the level where you will really win Champions Leagues and be the best in Spain for years in a row? That is not the case at the moment. Let’s hope that it will come again.”
The crowd appear to have come to terms with the same realism. Having been absent when Barca’s oldest Champions League XI played out the previous meeting, they stuck with a team that featured four teenagers by full-time. The veteran Pique was still on the pitch, too, to hopelessly fall at the feet of Lewandowski following another rebound five minutes from the end, giving the forward time to find the net once more.
Pique led the applause in a show of appreciation for those supporters at the final whistle, as attention now turns to simply getting out of the group. It is a modest ambition, but this is the first time Barca have lost a Champions League opener since 1997-98.
Beyond that, the financial rewards surely provide more achievable aims than the prizes on offer for Bayern and Co. Revenge in this fixture will have to wait. For how long, who knows?