He knew. Of course he knew. Pep Guardiola spent four remarkable years as the coach at Barcelona, won 14 trophies at Barcelona, saw Lionel Messi score more than 200 goals for Barcelona. When Guardiola, who now coaches Bayern Munich, said Tuesday that Messi was “unstoppable,” it was not hyperbole. It was simply the truth from a man who could not lie.
And Guardiola was right. Bayern Munich tried anyway; the Bavarians tried everything, really. Physical play. High-pressure defending. Even a risky three-back defensive scheme that lasted fewer than 20 minutes before Guardiola realized he was doing the soccer equivalent of playing with dynamite.
In the end, there was no escaping. Messi teased and tantalized without a payoff until late into the second half Wednesday night. Yet, when the inevitable finally arrived with about 13 minutes remaining, it was as enchanting as anything Messi has ever produced.
First, there was the sheer power, a lashed shot from outside the penalty area that burrowed into the corner of the net. Then, three minutes later, there was the artist’s touch, a breathtaking run that felled defender Jérôme Boateng as if he had been knocked unconscious, followed by a devilish chip over the goalkeeper that sent the Camp Nou stadium into hysterics and Guardiola, on the sideline, into the emptiest of stares.
CreditManu Fernandez/Associated Press
Is this Champions League semifinal over? Technically, it is not. Neymar’s late goal completed Barcelona’s 3-0 victory and gave it a mountainous lead in the two-game aggregate series, but Bayern has enough talent to hold on to at least a sliver of hope ahead of next Tuesday’s return at Allianz Arena.
And yet, still: Messi’s magic felt like a death blow.
“Leo,” said Barcelona’s coach, Luis Enrique, “is a player from another dimension.”
Guardiola, looking ashen in the interview room, was blunt: “You can turn around a one- or two-goal deficit,” he said. “But three is tough.”
Guardiola added that it was particularly grating for him to know how close Munich was — just 15 minutes — from a result that would have been an altogether triumphant return for him. He actually came back to Camp Nou two months ago, with his father, to watch from the stands as Barcelona beat Manchester City, but that was a (mostly) pleasure trip. Wednesday was about business, a point Guardiola made repeatedly before the match, saying: “I am not here for my testimonial. I’m here to do my job.”
There was considerable pressure on him, too. As dominant as Bayern Munich has been in Germany, the club’s standards are impossibly high, and no one in Munich has forgotten the embarrassment of last year’s semifinal pounding by Real Madrid, which included a 4-0 loss at Allianz Arena. Guardiola has won the Bundesliga each of his two seasons in charge — Munich clinched this year’s title with four games to spare — but for a team seeking to become as big a global brand as Barça and Real, European success is critical.
Now, another continental humbling is underway. “We saw today they didn’t give us many chances, but never say never,” goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. “We must try to believe.”
Not surprisingly, a game loaded with superstars was electric from the start. Guardiola, who was missing a bevy of key players — including Arjen Robben, David Alaba and Franck Ribéry — nonetheless opted for a surprising three-man back line that was charged with containing Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez.
It was vintage Guardiola — creative and innovative, but not terribly effective. Barcelona was constantly rushing past Munich’s high line and, if not for Neuer’s acrobatic kick save on an early Suárez chance, it would have led after 12 minutes.
To his credit, Guardiola wasn’t dogmatic. After 16 minutes of nervy defending, he switched to a more traditional formation with four defenders, and Bayern settled in. While Barcelona had more scoring chances in the first half, it was the Germans who had the best one when Thomas Müller bulled toward the end line and crossed an inviting ball to Robert Lewandowski just a few yards in front of the goal.
Lewandowski is deservedly known as a savvy striker, but finishing in the Champions League this season has not been his strong suit. According to the Opta statistical service, he had missed seven clear-cut chances in European matches and, when he somehow scuffed Müller’s pass sideways, that leading total rose to eight.
To be fair, Lewandoski played Wednesday wearing a mask — he sustained a concussion and broke his jaw in a German Cup match eight days ago — but the miss was disappointing all the same.
“We had our chances, but we made it too easy for them,” said Munich’s captain, Philipp Lahm.
The second half was played at a slightly more temperate pace with many of the same ingredients — but there was no breakthrough.
Until Messi’s, that is.
“Being that close to Messi on the pitch is special,” Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano said. “Messi is a player that is impossible to describe. You just have to watch him and admire.”
Guardiola must do more than that. When the referee blew the final whistle, and Messi and Neymar were jumping around the field, Guardiola walked over to Enrique, his close friend and former teammate, and gave him a quick hug. Then Guardiola turned and stalked down the tunnel toward the dressing room.
There was no time to linger, and he needed to begin thinking. After all, there are just six days for him to find another way. Six days for him to figure out how to score at least three goals. Six days for him to solve a problem — a player — for which he knows there is no answer.