Three quarters of the way into their Champions’ League semi-final against Barcelona, FC Bayern looked good to take a decent result back to Bavaria. Pep Guardiola’s side had kept out everything that their opponents could throw at them, and as the clock ticked past the seventy-five minute mark all was well. Then, two crushing blows in the space of three minutes turned the tie on its head, with a crippling – and completely avoidable – third goal coming in injury time.
In truth, all three goals were avoidable in a game that had looked so good until the wheels came spinning off completely in dramatic fashion on what was a warm late spring evening on the Mediterranean coast.
On the morning of the match four Red Dragons had set out from London, meeting in the afternoon at a restaurant opposite the famous Boqueria market before heading to the Placa d’Espanya and joining the throng of Bayern supporters for the march towards the Camp Nou. Everybody was in great spirits as the red and white army made their way into the cavernous amphitheatre, one of football’s most iconic venues.
As the sun started to go down, transforming the sunny afternoon into a pleasantly warm evening, we believed.
FC Bayern coach Guardiola had somehow managed to assemble a decent-looking starting eleven despite all of the ongoing injury problems, with Thomas Müller, Xabi Alonso, Juan Bernat and Jérôme Boateng all coming back into the team after being rested for the weekend’s Bundesliga encounter in Leverkusen. Having sustained concussion and a broken nose in the DFB-Pokal semi-final defeat against Dortmund just a week earlier few people expected striker Robert Lewandowski to be fully fit to start, but as the Champions’ League anthem played he was there, looking a little like Batman in a black protective mask.
If Die Roten ever needed a superhero, it was now. With an in-form Barcelona fielding an impressive line-up including Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez and Andres Iniesta the task facing Bayern was always going to be tough even with a full-strength and fully fit side.
Not surprisingly the Blaugrana were quick to set the pace, and right from the start we all knew that it was not going to be one of those famous quiet nights for Manuel Neuer in the Bayern goal. Suárez took a tumble in the box early on only to have play waved on by Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli and then warmed Neuer’s gloves with a slightly scuffed low shot, but with twelve minutes gone the Uruguayan forced the Bayern ‘keeper into a fine save after breaching the back line.
Bayern’s first and only genuine chance came just short of the twenty minute mark Lewandowki was agonisingly unable to get on the end of a sharp pass from Thomas Müller, with Barça ‘keeper Marc-André ter Stegen able to watch it skid past harmlessly.
Having survived Suárez’s early chance the visitors were able to keep the Catalans at bay, and while opportunities at the other end were few and far between there were few complaints among the Bayern supporters when the two teams walked off at half time with the scores still level.
The second half saw Barcelona play in much the same way with Bayern content to sit back and wait for a chance to attack on the break, but as the game approached the hour mark Die Roten were able to find more time in the opposition half. Bayern managed to earn themselves a couple of set-piece opportunities but were unable to make anything of them, with an Alonso free-kick crashing harmlessly against the defensive wall and a deflected Thiago effort easily collected by former ‘Gladbacher ter Stegen.
With just over thirteen minutes remaining things were still looking healthy for Guardiola’s men, but here the game took its first twist. Neymar had already been booked but was able to escape a second yellow card for a clear dive in the Bayern penalty area, and as the Bavarians looked to work the ball forward Juan Bernat was dispossessed by Dani Alves. A quick pass inside from Alves found the dangerous Messi, whose crisp low left-footed shot beat Neuer at his near post.
All of the hard work of the first seventy-seven minutes had been undone by a moment of carelessness, and there was a clear sense of shock in the stand where we were sitting. The home supporters had not been particularly loud, but with their team in front they probably felt more confident as they upped the volume. Meanwhile, the Bayern coach replaced a visibly annoyed Müller with Mario Götze.
Just being a goal behind all was not lost for Bayern, but their being caught completely cold immediately had thrown them onto the back foot. There were some nervy touches on the ball, and just three minutes after going behind yet another series of mistakes allowed Messi in for his and Barcelona’s second.
Much of the post-match analysis would focus on Boateng who had ended up flat on his backside after being turned inside out by the little Argentinian, but the opportunity had only come about after another misdirected pass in the middle of the pitch. Looking far more comfortable in the Bayern half as they strung a series of crisp short passes, there was a sense of inevitability as Messi turned inside the box and past the hapless Boateng before dinking the ball over Neuer.
Lionel Messi prepares to sidestep Jérôme Boateng on his way to scoring Barcelona’s second goal
Bayern quickly looked to readjust and press forward for an away goal, but as the game moved into injury time their determination to walk the ball into the Barcelona net got the better of them. Rather than have a shot and risk the ball flying into the crowd – which would have allowed them time to reset for any resulting goal-kick – they ended up playing one pass too many. As the men in claret and blue streamed forward on the break an excellent advantage given by the ref in the fourth minute of injury time saw Neymar in the clear, and the Brazilian made no mistake.
Although Barcelona had been the better team on the night the final score clearly flattered Luis Enrique’s side, but the bitter truth is that the Catalans were streets ahead of anybody else Bayern have played this season. If the first goal shocked the Bavarians and the second felt like a hard punch to the head, the third goal was the blow to the guts that surely put the tie beyond doubt.
It is hard to believe that Guardiola’s injury-ravaged side can overturn such a deficit in the second leg against a high-quality opponent like Barcelona, but we can only hope that the same “cornered tigers” that came out roaring against Porto in the quarter-finals make their presence felt at what will be a packed and emotional Allianz Arena.
Nobody will be expecting Bayern to repeat their quarter-final heroics or the magnificent evening at the Allianz against Barcelona in 2013, but what we will all be hoping for is a performance that allows the team to bow out of the competition with their dignity intact – and their heads held high.
Man of the Match
Up until the first Barcelona goal, every member of Bayern’s eleven had given their all and played their part. However for his excellent save to keep Die Roten in the contest early on, Manuel Neuer gets the nod.
UEFA Champions’ League, Semi-Final First Leg
Camp Nou, Barcelona, 06.05.2015
FC Barcelona 3:0 (0:0) FC Bayern
Messi 77., 80., Neymar 90.+4. / –
Barcelona: ter Stegen – Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano (89. Bartra), Alba – Busquets – Rakitić (82. Xavi), Iniesta (c) (87. Rafinha) – Messi, Suárez, Neymar
FC Bayern: Neuer – Bernat, Benatia, Boateng, Rafinha – Lahm (c), Alonso – Thiago, Schweinsteiger – Müller (79. Götze), Lewandowski
Yellow Cards: Dani Alves, Piqué, Neymar / Alonso, Benatia, Bernat