Someone could use a hug here. Actually – two someones…
46th minute was the moment when all hope was gone for them. Precisely at that very point of time: 46th minute, right after the break. It wasn’t even that much happening at in that minute: they were moving back out of the dugouts, trying perhaps to compose themselves after what happened earlier. They knew that with just two shots to opponent’s 11 and eight tackles won to the other side’s 16, things were going bad, worse than bad. They came back unchanged, with a scoreline to chase and a half to forget – a half they could all draw one or two conclusions from; a half they could put past themselves and have one more go. They knew they are going to struggle immensely and the other team won’t drop the ball now, when a victory is in their sight. But a change was needed immediately; a change was desperately required. instead, they changed nothing. It ended 0-4.
In days to come, many people in Paris and Europe will look back at this match with one phrase on their minds. “It was easier than I thought”. Indeed: the tie that’s already been known as a competitive one, flipped it’s metaphorical finger at everyone and went in the most unpredictable direction. Take a look at the previous results in it: 2-2 draw in 2013 with Matuidi salvaging the result in the injury time; 1-1 draw in a rematch and Barcelona going through on away goals; hard-fought 3-2 Paris win in the 2014 group stages; a resounding MSN’s reply in a 3-1 Camp Nou revenge; Luis Suárez deciding the issue in April 2015, after nutmegging David Luiz twice; Neymar putting the last two nails in PSG’s coffin. Regardless of the result, it’s always been a fight, a clash, a thrill. But today, in February 2017, one team got utterly steamrolled – and it was the team few people expected to implode.
It was Barcelona. XXI century was caught by surprise by this team, this team that has entered the new millennium with only one Champions League title to it’s name. Seventeen years later, after picking up 29 pieces of silverware, Blaugrana has imprinted itself on people’s brains as a team capable of playing about any style of football. Total control and never-ending ball possession? No problem. Killer counterattacks with passes in behind the defence? You’ve got it. Overloading the wings to stretch the opposition? Just sit and watch. With ever-present pillars like Pique, Iniesta and Messi, they’ve been adopting all sorts of gameplans: from murdering the rivals in the first 15 minutes to exhausting them and scoring late winners.
On Tuesday, however, an innovation happened. An entirely new concept. A concept so groundbreaking, so revolting, it’s only been exercised by several small teams with no reputation whatsoever. Suppose we go out there to play some pedestrian football. Suppose we don’t make the runs while in possession. Suppose we don’t really put any emphasis on having the ball at all but we also decide to neglect stifling our opponents’ movements. Suppose we leave ourselves very, very open down the wings and don’t close down the runs in those sectors, providing the other team time to play dangerous passes forward. Suppose, on the top of this, that we do not adapt at all during the match. What is going to happen?
We’ve got an answer now. A game, in which Kevin Trapp has been forced to make exactly one save. A game, in which Marco Verratti alone has won more tackles than the three-man midfield of Busquets, Gomes and Iniesta. A game, in which Lionel Messi has completed his first successful dribble after an hour. A game that saw Blaise Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot bullying the middle of the park with their unrelenting energy. The first notable contribution from FCB’s midfield came deep in the second half, when Busquets, visibly annoyed by the run of play, stormed forward and attempted a through ball to Messi – a pass which, in the end, got intercepted. If that wasn’t a sign of desperation – I don’t know what was.
The lack of reaction after the break only amplified the grim landscape. PSG spotted their opportunity, kept the intensity flowing and got rewarded with a rout in the end – but there were more questions to be asked. What was the point of gambling 30 million pounds on inexperienced, incompatible with Blaugrana’s style, André Gomes? Why the team wastes Sergi Roberto’s potential by forcing him to play as a makeshift, very dubious right-back? What’s the life after Andres Iniesta going to be – who will sign to take his burden of building up the attacks? Why Neymar, the only fighter on Tuesday night, cannot be the same one-man army Messi used to be? And, above everything else: which coach should come by to sort this gigantic mess before things get out of hand? The Catalan press tips Jorge Sampaoli and Steven N’Zonzi for the summer. Well… Good luck to them. It’s going to be loads of work.
The skipper falls; the ship sinks soon after.
49th minute. Everything’s been going better than expected until the 49th minute. The hosts might’ve been mastering the ball with over 77% possession but they had only 3 shots on target and only 1-1 on the scoreboard. Alexis Sánchez has been giving them trouble on the counterattack; Bellerín, though useless going forward, kept tabs on Douglas Costa and David Ospina has already made few confident saves, giving Gooners across the globe much-needed hope. However, the brain behind this resilient 49 minutes was the man who’s been forced to leave the battlefield prematurely. Until his unfortunate injury, Laurent Koscielny has won 3 tackles, made 3 interceptions, earned his team a penalty and did absolutely everything in his power to stop Robert Lewandowski’s rampage. The Pole was on just two, half-hearted, missed shots before his guardian angel has left the building. The rest – we all know.
Roughly 48 hours ago, I’ve said that this Bayern team were a much more economical, much more reserved side than the one put together by Pep or Heynckes. Indeed – they were. On Wednesday, the red shark smelled blood again and wouldn’t stop rattling the prey’s sides until they were torn to shreds. The second goal, scored through exemplary interplay between Robben, Lahm and Lewandowski, cemented the home side’s confidence; the third one, bagged by Thiago from Lewandowski’s flick, convinced Germans that they can not only beat but also humiliate Arsenal there. Shkodran Mustafi, Koscielny’s heir at spreading the defensive commands, took few seconds too many and gave the lecture to Bellerín instead of picking up Thiago – and that was all she wrote. The massacre, taken from the most vivid gore movies, was on. Over. Better not get into further details; the children might be reading.
Where are Gunners even heading with this stuff? In the span of just two years, they’ve had two world-class players dumped on them by Barcelona and Real Madrid – players, who seemed to still have a lot in their tanks but somehow, didn’t entirely fit in their previous sides. Had those two been able to go in-form together – their new club could’ve been very, very hard to stop. It did not happen, though. Sánchez, the lone gunman amongst ten, anonymous jerseys with flesh put inside them, has been doing his best, like true professional – of no avail. Twelve months ago, the same applied to Mesut Özil – of no avail. Per Mertesacker plus Aaron Ramsey; Nacho Monreal plus Granit Xhaka; Francis Coquelin plus Gabriel… there is always at least a pair of players who are undoing, invalidating their leaders’ efforts. In such circumstances, no trophy can realistically be won.
The gameplan we’ve seen was dubious as well. Sloppy on the ball, unwilling to contest Bayern’s control over the game, the visitors only proved how unconvinced they are in their own ability to at least make a fight out of this tie. After all, this was a game destined to look ugly from their perspective and they were well aware how important it will be to just barely, barely hang on. Unfortunately for the lads: one thing they’ve been chronically bad at over those last two decades is getting the good result out of an ugly performance. So when Robert Lewandowski continued to miss those cute, difficult headers from weird angles – there was still very little doubt about the direction this match will find in the end.
One man seems to disagree, though. In his post-match interview, Arsene Wenger pointed out at two balls being on the pitch when Manuel Neuer restarted the play and indirectly set up the second goal. He also blamed two good chances his team squandered just before the half time. Fortunately for him, the journalist did not dare to inquire about few other facts. Why Danny Welbeck did not play? When will he stop putting his faith in Francis Coquelin – the player who wouldn’t even make the bench at Spurs, Liverpool or United? How come Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returns to a winger’s role after two, very good games in the heart of the midfield? Is Iwobi really the player who could give Lahm any trouble? What… now?
Sixteen months ago, Bayern have beaten Arsenal 5-1 at home and Thomas Müller scored the final goal in the 89th minute. Now: Bayern have beaten Arsenal 5-1 at home and Thomas Müller scored the final goal in the 88th minute. That is the story of AFC’s progress in Europe: running into a brick wall year after year. As Albert Einstein remarked: insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome. It’s been seven years into that process continuously repeating itself. It actually has come to the point when even the most die-hard Arsenal fans are starting to expect nothing but disappointments whenever the games are on. And that is about the last foundation on which the success can be built.
Getting steamrolled can be a lesson too – but as we all know, some people never learn.