Barcelona's crushing blow at Bayern feels like a changing of the guard

And so this Barcelona generation comes full circle.

That, at least, is the conclusion many were drawing immediately after this astonishing defeat. For many this represented the end of an era. That conclusion is premature but there was a kind of seductive logic to it. Few teams have been as aware of their place in the club's history as this one and, even at their lowest moment, there was a certain symbolism, a symmetry.

Barcelona equalled their worst ever European result, their worst result for well over a decade. They also equalled the result that Barcelona fans will never forget, from 18 May 1994. The Dream Team were the model that Pep Guardiola said all subsequent Barcelona teams sought to emulate. This generation had done so in just about every way; perhaps all that was left was to do so in defeat too.

The Dream Team's most famous victory, the one that defined them, was a 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; their most famous defeat, the one that brought it all crashing down, was the 4-0 hammering at the hands of Milan in the European Cup final in Athens. This generation's single most famous victory, the one that Xavi Hernández cites as their best performance, was a 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; could this 4-0 defeat be the one that brings it all tumbling down?

On the face of it the suggestion is an absurd one. They still have Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Xavi. They have not suddenly become bad players. This weekend Barcelona could clinch the league title in what could yet be a record-breaking campaign. They have a 13-point lead over Real Madrid.

But as the sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, sarcastically noted this week, it can feel as if the league does not matter: he described it as a "clandestine tournament played between Champions League ties". It is also a competition in which Madrid admitted defeat and abdicated early. And in 1994 Barcelona had won the league too – just days before going to Athens.

Barcelona were favourites in that year; they had just won a fourth successive league title. But some players admit that they were shattered, running on empty. That feeling will resonate now. They were torn apart in 1994 and here, too, there could be no arguments. "They gave us a drubbing," Gerard Piqué admitted. "They were quicker than us and better than us. There are no excuses."

There was barely a shot on goal from a Barcelona side who rarely escaped their own half and, if some Catalans could complain about the referee, three possible handballs were ignored that might have brought the home side penalties.

Despite that fatigue, defeat in 1994 – in a final, not a semi-final – still came as a gigantic surprise. This time it did not. Few foresaw a defeat like this but, for possibly the first time since 2008, they went into a European game not as favourites. Xavi had admitted before this match that Bayern were playing the best football in Europe at the moment. "We have been defeated by a great team," Víctor Valdés said.

Bayern are a hugely impressive side and this was a brilliant performance. If Barcelona are genuinely in decline, it may be that the team best placed to take over from them are the German champions. What the world witnessed last night had the feeling of a changing of the guard.

Bayern, remember, should have won last season's Champions League, will be strengthened by the arrival of Mario Götze in the summer and have none other than Guardiola waiting to coach them.

It is no coincidence that they will surely now play their third final in four years; nor that they have wrapped up the Bundesliga, scored six in each of their past two league games and have a cup final to look forward to. Perhaps any team would have been put to the sword like this on Tuesday night, not just Barcelona.

Barcelona certainly contributed to their demolition, though. Defeat was coming; the warning signs were there. Beaten in Glasgow, beaten in Milan, two draws against Paris Saint-Germain. Beaten, too, by Real Madrid domestically – twice in a week, the second time against what was effectively Madrid's reserves.

There will be those calling for a change in identity and style. The identity is not necessarily the problem, although it has been modified this season; its implementation is and there are extenuating factors. There must also be questions asked about the planning and the significance of Guardiola's departure: both it terms of its impact and its motivation. It as been suggested that he could see some of the vices slipping in.

Some of the problems are structural, some incidental. There have been mistakes, bad luck and worse luck. Their coach, Tito Vilanova, and the centre-back Eric Abidal have had cancer. Barcelona were without the centre-backs Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Adriano, and the latter two are converts anyway. They signed Alex Song and presented him as a centre-back but the experiment proved far from convincing.

Their vulnerability at the back has been screaming them in the face for months. They have come from behind 15 times this season: that says something of their character and quality but it also says something that they had to. The squad is short and the team has become clear: Vilanova saw little on his bench on Tuesday night that he thought could change the game. His passivity was startling. There has not been anyone to provide what Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry provided.

Barcelona looked tired. Maybe any team would against the sheer speed and intensity of Bayern but this has been detectable for some time. This, put simply, is not a fit team at the moment. Sergio Busquets, struggling with a pelvic injury, could not cover his usual territory. Even Iniesta, the one person to try to open Bayern up, lacked freshness. Few looked as tired as Messi, the man around whom the team had built: there was no acceleration, no invention, and the game flew past him. Statistics showed that he ran four and a half kilometres less than Xavi. He could not run any more.

Powered by article was written by Sid Lowe, for The Guardian on Wednesday 24th April 2013 01.17 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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