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In a UEFA Champions League year defined by large scorelines, this blowout may be the most shocking. Barcelona came out looking flat and was blown out by an in-form Bayern Munich 4-0.

The big news pre-game was that Barcelona would start the not 100% Lionel Messi, hoping that the creative forward would weave some magic through the slower Bayern backs. The move backfired spectacularly, as Messi looked tentative throughout the game and rarely tried to advance the ball when he had possession. Throughout the game he was more likely to move sideways or step back looking for a teammate than drive forward toward the goal. The lack of creativity trickled down to the entire team, which in this game could not make up for the lack of creativity from their superstar and instead looked lost for most of the game.

Two battles defined this game. The first was the Bayern right against Barcelona leftback Jordi Alba, with Arjen Robben running rampant on that side of the field and creating chances. The same was true to a lesser extent with Franck Ribery on the left, but the play of the fullbacks was dreadful to the Catalan faithful. The second battle was on corners, and this is where Barcelona cracked. Barca countered the more physical and taller home team by asking Victor Valdes to be more aggressive and quickly setting a high line after the ball in to draw Bayern offside. This strategy failed as two Bayern goals came from corners. For the first goal in the 25th minute, a corner couldn’t be cleared by the visitors who paid when a Dante header was put into the back of the net by Muller.

On offense, Barcelona’s famed domination of possession existed (finishing with 66% possession for the game) but they could not adjust to Bayern’s patient press and physical play. In fact, their quality scoring chances can be counted on one hand, with a chance in the 29th minute possibly being the best. Pedro found space on the right and threaded a pass in front of goal that a sliding Dante cleared before it could reach Messi for an almost certain goal. At the halftime whistle, the 1-0 scoreline was indicative of Bayern’s superior play but Barcelona looked as through with some tweaks they could steal an away goal.

The second half began with some positive play from Barcelona as Pedro was put in on goal but was called offside in a questionable call. In the 49th minute, however, Barcelona’s lack of physical play on corners struck again as Valdes was neutralized on a long corner that Thomas Muller headed across net to a wide open (and probably offside) Mario Gomez who finished for a 2-0 lead. So with a not fully healthy Messi on the field and staring at a deficit against a team that does not allow goals at home, what does Barcelona do? They swap sides in their 4-3-3 formation and try to maintain possession, but Bayern closed out their usual pockets of space and the match referee’s failure to whistle small fouls didn’t help Barcelona’s comeback chances.

The back-breaking goal in the 73rd minute was certainly controversial, but again it was Robben abusing Jordi Alba to create space for his second goal in seven games. Rightly the talking point is the “pick” that inexplicably went uncalled, but that glosses over the fact that Barcelona’s fullbacks were exposed in this match. Barcelona almost pulled one back in the 76th minute as Bartra on a free kick found himself alone on front of goal but skied the shot, a perfect epitome of Barcelona’s night.

What could Barcelona have done differently? Starting Messi was a mistake, one that is easier to see in hindsight. Bayern Munich were able to easily adjust to an injured Messi by giving him space when moving laterally and quickly closing down lanes when he moved forward (with or without the ball). Without Messi able to create scoring chances using his skill, he was offensively impotent. I believe that starting Fabregas over Messi would have given Barcelona a better chance, as the midfielder would have allowed Barcelona to more quickly advance the ball and, even if he is not the offensive threat that Messi is, he could have created and exploited more space for the visitors.

Regardless, Barcelona now need less tactics and more miracles to again advance to the Champions League final.

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