April is Champions League crunch-time, with all four quarter-finals and the first legs of both semi-finals taking place. And, for the last decade, FC Barcelona have been a staple at this stage of the competition. 2007 was the last time they failed to make the final eight, suffering a surprise defeat to Liverpool at Camp Nou, and the six seasons after that included six runs to the semi-finals or beyond.
Many consider the 2010/11 triumph the pinnacle of Barcelona, and arguably of club football, in the 21st century. However, their previous run to glory was at times even more dazzling – not least in a quarter-final victory nine years ago this week.
The Bayern Munich side they faced in April 2009 might not have been the greatest vintage, but they still had many of the players who reached the following year’s Champions League final. And Barça ripped them to shreds so efficiently that a 180-minute tie was over and done with after just 43.
Pep Guardiola’s side would later find their death-by-one-thousand-cuts approach considered uninspiring or dull by critics, but this game showed the best elements of tiki-taka, before pundits got tired and began looking for a new trend to put on a pedestal. This was not passing football with the aim of merely grinding down your opponents. Sure, that might have been one consequence of the approach, but it also brought rapid, expansive play to leave opponents dead on the ground before they had even sensed a shot might be fired.
Lionel Messi’s opener is a case in point, benefiting from build-up play designed to induce panic in the Bayern back-line to the point that there was plenty of theoretical cover but none even vaguely near the Argentine. While the defenders looked hurried, hurtling at pace to even get near play, Messi has as much time as he wants – and lets us know he knows it.
The two most noticeable personnel changes between the 2009 and 2011 vintages, if not the most important overall, were the replacement of Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry with David Villa and Pedro.
While the latter two might have been better fits for the system with which Guardiola ended his time in Catalonia, it is hard to envisage the pair having the same impact in the victory over Bayern, a game where the attacking approach was less ‘wait for the chance to snipe’ and more ‘wait for the chance to snipe, but also one of you go at them with a chainsaw while you’re waiting’.
Of course, that’s easy to do when each member of your front three is a persistent and immediate threat, as was the case with Eto’o, Henry and Messi, who at 21 years of age was already most of the way into the first ever 30-goal season of his career.
Bayern might have been naïve at times under Jürgen Klinsmann, but even they were aware enough to see him cutting in from the right and do all it took to prevent him pulling the trigger (perhaps this was good practice for training with Arjen Robben a few years down the line).
Of course, reacting quickly to Messi is never enough, purely because he’ll usually have anticipated your reaction before you even know about it yourself.
In goes Eto’o, in goes the second goal. Klinsmann throws his PlayStation controller to the ground and has to be talked into playing out the remaining 78 minutes.
That was always the worst part of taking on Guardiola’s Barcelona – the idea that you could never feel comfortable, due to the speed with which they could turn a calm passage of passing into a fast-paced break for goal. Playing against them was like settling into your first pre-season friendly only to be told half an hour in that it was a competitive match with instant relegation for the loser – you could hardly blame Bayern, or many of their other victims, for playing scared. Indeed, Henry very nearly scored a goal not dissimilar to Eto’o’s, beating the offside trap but missing the target, before laying on Messi’s second. And when the 5’7” Barça man is forcing his way past bigger, stronger defenders you know it’s not your day.
As for the fourth and final goal, that’s a classic of the ‘losing at FIFA and pre-empting your bad luck’ genre, but to bemoan Bayern’s bad luck and panicked defending would be to ignore the phenomenal pace and control that necessitates it. Sure, the desperate diving in, unfortunate ricochet and vain appeal for something/anything all play their part, but they’re the work of a defence run ragged both in the game so far and in that precise moment. It’s Bayern’s defenders knocking the chess-board to the ground after Messi and Henry have played a game-winning move, only for the pieces to miraculously stay in place long enough tor Eto’o to call out ‘checkmate’.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich will both fancy themselves to advance from this season’s Champions League quarter-finals, where they have to get past Roma and Sevilla respectively, so they could yet meet in the final four. The personnel may have largely changed since 2009, but Barcelona still have key cogs with experience of that evening in the form of Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and, yes, Messi.
If given a chance, we wouldn’t put it past them to do it all again.
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- Андрей Мехнин
- Yerlan Makhatov