It was hard to believe that teams once tried to play like Barcelona. Not any more. Their football is stale, their soul has disappeared and too many players have seen better days. They are a shadow of their former selves and although it is impossible to envisage Quique Setién ever managing them again after overseeing a historic humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich, the harsh reality is that Barcelona’s malaise extends much further than the dugout.
History will not be kind to the people who make the decisions at the Camp Nou. They deserve nothing but scorn for squandering Lionel Messi’s talent. Five years have passed since Messi last won the Champions League and it has reached the stage where he might have to do the unthinkable and leave Barcelona, who are rudderless off the pitch and lethargic on it.
Even Messi’s head dropped. He was strolling as Bayern, hungry to lift win this competition for the first time in seven years, rampaged forward. The end of an era is approaching and Barcelona’s decline was epitomised by Messi losing the ball before Philippe Coutinho scored the first of his two goals.
It was the cruellest of ironies that Coutinho, signed for £105m from Liverpool in January 2018, rubbed salt in Barcelona’s wounds. The Brazilian, who was loaned out last summer after a difficult spell in Spain, must have been glad to be wearing Bayern’s colours. Playing in a cohesive unit, Coutinho had fun against his parent club, creating Robert Lewandowski’s goal shortly after coming off the bench and walking through to make it 8-2 in the last minute.
Coutinho was not the only symbol of Barcelona’s flawed recruitment. Ousmane Dembélé, bought from Borussia Dortmund when Neymar joined Paris Saint-Germain three years ago, was on the bench and there was no place in the starting lineup for Antoine Griezmann, who has failed to hold down a place in attack since signing from Atletico Madrid last year.
Too many buys have backfired. Frenkie De Jong, who helped Ajax reach the semi-finals last season, has struggled to lift the midfield and too many of the old guard have not been replaced. Given that Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué are the wrong side of 30, it is not a surprise that Barcelona are so slow.
Messi’s characterisation of a weak team who shrink when confronted by intensity is spot on. Barcelona were beautiful on the ball but painfully brittle without it, and they conceded from Bayern’s first proper attack. There were four minutes on the clock when Ivan Perisic, breaking into space vacated by Nelson Semedo on the left, found Thomas Müller, who exchanged a volleyed one-two with Lewandowski before firing beyond Marc-André ter Stegen.
At least there was a brief response from Barcelona. Setien’s decision to drop Griezmann and switch to a 4-4-2 system unsettled Bayern at first and there was hope for Barcelona when Messi was on the ball.
Barcelona targeted Bayern’s high line and they equalised after seven minutes. A long ball released Jordi Alba, who hurtled behind Joshua Kimmich on the left and crossed for Suárez. David Alaba moved in to intervene, only to slice into his own goal.
Suddenly Barcelona were alive. Suárez, released by Nelson Semedo, just failed to lift a dink over Manuel Neuer. Messi saw an inswinging cross hit the inside of the post. Then he shot too close to Neuer after dribbling in from the right.
Yet Barcelona never convinced at the back. Lewandowski sent a warning shot over and the German champions regained the lead when they pressed Barcelona. Sergi Roberto dithered and Serge Gnabry pounced, robbing the midfielder and releasing Perisic, who drove in a low shot with his left foot.
Barcelona collapsed. Leon Goretzka lifted a clever pass over the top for Gnabry, who finished confidently. After 31 minutes Kimmich joined in an attack and crossed for Müller, whose second goal of the night all but killed the game as a contest.
The strange thing was that Bayern, chasing a treble, were not flawless. Their defence was vulnerable and Barcelona, who threw on Griezmann at half-time, pulled one back when Suárez beat Jérôme Boateng before finishing well.
Yet there was no way back for Barcelona. Six minutes later Alphonso Davies, Bayern’s wonderful left-back, surged into the area after duping Semedo. Piqué, a centre-back whose powers have waned, froze as Davies gave Kimmich an open goal.
With 15 minutes left Bayern sent on Coutinho. Barcelona’s misery was not over yet. They have let Messi down.