A first-half demolition job from Barcelona – orchestrated by Lionel Messi – saw the Spanish league leaders establish a 4-0 Champions League quarterfinal lead after a first-leg mauling of Bayern Munich at Camp Nou on Wednesday evening.
Scoring two and having a direct hand in goals for Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry, the Argentinean playmaker further cemented the regard in which he is held by the footballing world as the greatest player at the moment with a display that capped an all-round masterful team performance.
Bayern looked majestic in their dismantling of Sporting in the last round, pumping 12 goals over two legs past the Portuguese side. Coming up against a Barca side in this form and pomp made them look positively amateur, and belittled and discredited their last-16 triumph in the process as they were well and truly given the run-around in Catalonia.
Within six minutes it became apparent that Barca were going to control this game when Henry had a chance cleared off the line, as he latched onto Andres Iniesta’s cute pass that sliced the Bayern defense. With Hans-Jorg Butt rounded, the former Arsenal man’s off-balance finish was blocked by Martin Demichelis but it was a brief reprieve for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side.
After just nine minutes – in which Barca had already carved a few openings with their characteristically delightful angled passes – Messi opened the scoring. Eto’o managed to help the ball on to the Argentinean maestro, whose first touch was only bettered by his cool finish. 1-0 – slick.
Three minutes later the roles were reversed as Messi ran in off the right wing and threaded a marvelous pass against the grain of his run while looking the other way. It was reminiscent of Ronaldinho in his Camp Nou prime, and Eto’o’s finish was, well, just pure Eto’o. With the ball slotted successfully under Butt from a tight angle it was 2-0. Classy.
Messi was already dominant when a stonewall penalty was turned away by English referee Howard Webb in the 17th minute. Christian Lell’s outstretched leg tripped the mesmeric star as he turned with his body practically at a 45 degree angle to the floor and dragged the ball past the left-back. Whether Webb was trying to spare Bayern further humiliation so early in the game is anybody’s guess, but the yellow card administered to Messi was ridiculous. So ridiculous in fact that Barca boss Pep Guardiola was sent to the stands for his vociferous touchline remonstrations.
At this stage it is necessary to point out that Bayern were killing themselves. Misplaced passes, panicked clearances, and sluggish reactions were all ugly scenes to try and palate when sipping in such fine visual offerings that Barca laid out. However, it would be remiss not to suggest that the implosion was caused by Barca’s immediate assault. They were, after all, on it from the start and took the wind out of Bayern’s sails as soon as the game kicked off.
Back to the action! As Barca continued to pick astute pass after pass Henry sidefooted inches wide and caught Butt in the face by accident and Eto’o had a shot deflected over. Then on 38 minutes another pick-you-apart goal came as Messi lunged in to poke Henry’s low cross home, the Frenchman having left Bayern right-back Massimo Oddo wondering where he was. 3-0. Unforgiving.
Bayern’s frustrations became ever more evident in the 43rd minute when Mark van Bommel flew into Messi with a raised elbow and dropped the jinking forward on the turf. It was a poor challenge in bad taste and his brawn over brains approach backfired though as the loose ball spun to Henry, who clinically tucked away his 50th Champions League goal for 4-0. Comical – in the sense Messi just could not, and cannot, be stopped.
There was a glimmer of hope, if it can be called that, for Bayern as half time clocked on when Franck Ribery pulled wide when through on goal. The only player on the visitors’ side who looked likely could not believe he had the opening as his composure deserted him, and Iniesta shinned wide at the other end as a fifth evaded Barca as halftime came.
What Klinsmann must have said to his side can only be speculated upon, but it made no difference as Barca emerged in similarly aggressive style for the second half and immediately pinned their opponents back.
Butt was forced to make a sharp save low to his left from Messi as the onslaught continued, and when Bayern did manage to fashion some brief peeks at goal they were so deflated they could not convert. Ze Roberto failed to control a through ball from half-time substitute Andreas Ottl which would have seen him with a run in on goal, and the Brazilian was then left staring at the Barcelona night sky when Puyol put in a superb block to firmly deny him what looked a certain goal from six yards.
It was back to business at the other end then as Iniesta turned Oddo and Bastian Schweinsteiger inside out before lifting the ball marginally high and wide as Barca sought a fifth, having been denied for 35 minutes of the second half.
It is never a nice sight to see a player of the quality of Ribery looking so forlorn but the Bayern star was simply left out as Barca continued to govern play, although without the hard-line finishing edge they had adopted in the first half.
The scary thing is that there is a sense there is still much more to come from Barca. Messi was only denied a hat-trick at the death by his own team-mate Seydou Keita, who could not get out of the way of a shot.
Even the least presumptuous of football fans will find it hard not to envisage Barca lifting this season’s Champions League title, regardless of whom they meet on the way. First, they have the second leg to contend at the Allianz Arena in a week’s time, but if they play like this then that game and those to come after should be dealt with in just as impressive a manner.