The slow decline of the greatest show on Earth

Barcelona’s 2011 was the peak. The following season Barca went overboard on what had previously made them special, upsetting the fine balance. Xavi’s increasing and pretentious statements about “the right way to play” were becoming insufferable and reflected badly on the club.

They purchased prodigal son Cesc, somehow having to shoehorn him in with Xavi and Iniesta, all almost identical players. Of the defenders, the veterans Puyol and Abidal missed extended periods and Pique’s star fell almost as fast as it had risen. In attack Villa was replaced by Chilean Alexis Sanchez, an outsider who was nonetheless typical Barca, more a zippy all-rounder than a goal-scoring forward like Villa. Messi was used as a new innovation called a “false 9”, in which he would line up as the team’s centre forward but would fade back into attacking central midfield for others to stream in and score. The team ended up with no real forwards (or ten, depending on your outlook), no real defenders, and a midfield that consisted of pretty much everyone, including Dani Alves and Messi.

Barcelona in 2012 would embark on a game style that a lack of forwards would logically suggest. They would play the ball around and around and around, with no fixed goal to scoring a goal, losing all track of what was the aim of attacking, indeed of how games were won to begin with. They lost the plot.

 

Detour to Africa

Early 2012 featured the cameo of the heartrending triumph of the unknown Zambia national side in the African Nations Cup in Gabon, the very country in which Zambia’s national team had died en masse in an air crash in 1993. In the final they outlasted the doomed Cote d’Ivoire, the African team who, featuring Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, contained a who’s who of African football but in five Nations Cups could never quite bring home the bacon, losing two goalless finals on penalties.

African football had instead been faux-dominated by the quirky Egyptian team, who magnificently and authoritatively won three consecutive African Nations Cups in 2006, 2008 and 2010 – their 4-1 defeat of juggernaut Cote d’Ivoire in the 2008 semi-final was legendary – but who meekly surrendered World Cup qualification in the same era in a tempestuous, downright hateful series of showdowns against Algeria in late 2009. Egypt underlined the frustration by brushing Algeria aside once back in ‘their’ tournament, in the 2010 African Nations semi-final a mere two months later.

 

Round up the usual suspects

The 2012 Champions League contained the feel-good story of APOEL Nicosia, a team from Cyprus who not only won their group consisting of three recent UEFA Cup-winning clubs but then defeated Lyon in the second round, a journey that lasted from the original qualifying rounds all the way to the quarter-finals. A few weeks later the 2012 semi-final listing read Chelsea vs. Barcelona and Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid, two classic matchups over the years, but people nonetheless sat back and waited for the inevitable Real-Barca final.

This new Bayern were formed by much of what was making the new Germany special: the same players, of course, but the same balance, ball movement, power, attacking, excitement, goals. The one difference was that they were powered by the foreign ‘Robbery’ battery on the wings (Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery). They and Chelsea put a spanner into the inevitable “Clásico League final” by winning their home legs, Bayern beating Real 2-1 in the last minute.

Real had finally overcome Barca in Spain. Cristiano Ronaldo was his usual one-man freak, and his mate in tandem was Mesut Ozil, a Real Madrid player ever since the World Cup. Bayern and Real, antidotes to the weird and eventually quixotic Barca revolution, were powers in the classical sense: two teams who played the ball, looked to score, tried to impose their force, played defenders in defence and forwards in attack, lining up in the usual 4-2-3-1 formation of the era (a perhaps more interesting development than the old 4-4-2 ways). They would contest a pulsating semi, an end-to-end game and a half that eclipsed the other semi for on-field action but for the drama of pent-up historical desire could not compete.

 

Last drinks for Chelsea

Chelsea’s core were unbelievably still in place. That year they were supposed to have been dismantled, five and a half years after Mourinho had left and seven years after their 2005 peak, giving the lie to the suggestion that Mourinho never set up any club’s future. They had been outgunned the year before against Manchester United and were no longer a real factor in England or Europe.

One could argue that Chelsea did not play better than any of the opposition they bested in this campaign. Napoli had seemingly eliminated Chelsea 3-1 but had succumbed 1-4 in extra time to the vibe of one of England’s old-fashioned glory nights. Then after Chelsea had gone back to England with an assured 1-0 lead they stuttered at home against Benfica, almost throwing a second 1-0 lead away.

 

The redemption of 2009

Still, here they were once more in a semi-final against King Barcelona, two clubs who in Europe had gone in opposite directions since Iniesta’s goal. Barcelona could have immediately ended it, Sanchez’s lob when through on goal hitting the bar in London ten minutes in. But it didn’t go in, and Chelsea then locked the match down, putting in a similar all-out defensive effort to that of 2009, with the proviso that this time they were massive, massive underdogs, now small fry compared to Barcelona. The match had few chances on goal but the underlying forces involved were overwhelming: Chelsea, in their last chance, straining every layer of sweat and concentration to keep Barca out minute after minute, play after play, and Barca constantly pushing towards Chelsea’s end without success.

Directly on halftime Chelsea broke out and introduced a new temporary star who was unaffected by the previous failures. Lampard stole the ball from Messi and lifted a forward, cross-field pass to the streaking Brazilian Ramires on the left, who chested the ball on the run brilliantly. He charged into the box and rolled the ball across to the far post, where old hand Drogba tapped in. Ramires was the perfect type of Brazilian for Chelsea to be using in these circumstances: a powerful runner, a tireless grafter, who nonetheless had the Brazilian skills to be directly responsible for the two biggest moments of the tie.

It was Chelsea’s only attack. The final score, 1-0 to Chelsea, featured scenes of Lampard nodding cautiously in the English night, congratulating teammates, the feeling that this had been a throwback to the old days.

But it all went wrong on the return. Central defender Cahill went down injured; Chelsea finally conceded a tying goal half an hour in; and then the other central defender Terry was stupidly red carded, to set Chelsea reeling. Iniesta then found the only moment of space Barca would enjoy all night to roll in to the far post for 2-0 two minutes before halftime.

However, just like the first game on the halftime ‘buzzer’ Lampard delivered a peach of a through ball on the turn for Ramires to break clear on the right of the penalty area. It probably wasn’t a huge chance to score until keeper Victor Valdes came out to close the angle, at which point at full speed Ramires flicked a chip over the top and in. Chelsea now led on away goals in front of the shocked crowd. He shimmied on the touchline: a solitary man, for a lonely ten other players in white, had defied 90,000 people.

Chelsea’s coach was now Roberto di Matteo, ultimately as irrelevant as the rest of them but at least a man with Chelsea blood in his veins was in charge for the moment of glory. He optimistically stated to the players that in scoring, they had already done the hard part. Barca were given the chance to set everything right immediately after halftime, but Messi, the perfect football player, saw his penalty rebound from the crossbar and the siege had begun.

It is difficult to describe the appeal of what followed. A tie that for three halves had been one-dimensionally attacking/defensive continued to be, but was now one of the most thrilling Champions League ties ever, resonant with the tension of two teams who for historical reasons had to win, for both of them their last chance, the tie played in the shadow of Chelsea’s incendiary 2009 loss. It was watching a desperate, decimated but famous bunch against impossible odds work away minute by minute against one of the greatest teams ever on their home ground, and inexplicably succeeding. Anonymous Chelsea players Branislav Ivanovic and Jose Bosingwa moved into the empty central defence and stood up, the derided Ashley Cole played his heart out, old hand Petr Cech who had suffered all the heartbreaks played out of his skin, and Chelsea defended attack after attack as a ten-man defensive wall. Cech smothered Cuenca, set free on the left. He touched Messi’s fierce low shot onto the right post. Messi scored after a bullet-like one-two but was called offside. Finally in the last minute utter liability Fernando Torres received a Chelsea clearance on the halfway line with no one near him, strode forward and went around Victor Valdes with ease.

It was something of a miracle. For their troubles Chelsea would find half their team suspended for the final, including the crucial Ivanovic, Terry and Ramires. Barcelona played their usual anthem over the loudspeakers after the final whistle, but it sounded hollow. It had been that team’s last stand, and Guardiola’s last stand with them (neither fact apparent at the time).

 

A tale of two penalty shootouts

The next day at home Cristiano Ronaldo was two goals to the good within fifteen minutes for Real against Bayern, immediately reversing the 1-2 deficit. But Bayern won a penalty on the half hour, and the sight of Robben before Casillas resonated due to the save that had decided the World Cup two years previously. This time Robben’s penalty was perfect, just out of reach of Casillas’ arm.

That was the end of the entertaining 120 minutes of back-and-forth, as the tension finally became too much. Still, as the match wore on it became clearer that, as in the first leg, Bayern were a real team and slightly superior compared to Real Madrid, who were a more disjointed collection of stars perennially rescued by Ronaldo. Bayern’s forward Mario Gomez had presented and persevered in the first leg and in the end scored the last-minute winner but he was out of his depth in the second, missing the only chance to win for either team.

The writing was on the wall for Real when they missed their first two penalties, poetically by the very stars for whom they had shelled out €160 million for success, Ronaldo (who had originally put in a penalty after six minutes) and Kaka. Hinting that Germans were no longer the penalty experts they once had been, Casillas caught Real up with two saves, only for defender Sergio Ramos to put his over the top. In every shootout there is always someone who has no business being there. Barcelona and Real Madrid were shockingly not the be-all and end-all after all.

 

The freak show goes on

Messi and Ronaldo had symmetrically both missed a crucial penalty, directly leading to defeat. Messi, who had uncharacteristically disappeared in the crunch season-defining matches, went on to break Ronaldo’s 2011 record tally of 40 goals in the Spanish League with the round figure 50, which like Bob Beamon’s long jump could be the sort of mythical record that endures into the ages – except that Ronaldo also notched 46. The entire Spanish League had become a mere training ground for two freaks.

They had risen almost simultaneously and unlike the previous pretenders Ronaldinho and Kaka were incredibly consistent and dominant for seemingly years. Until Barcelona’s decline in 2013 Messi would always seemingly hold the upper hand; his anonymous off-field humility contrasting with the preening peacock Ronaldo, Messi’s slightly better trophy haul and goal tallies, the way he perfectly integrated the play at Barcelona compared to Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid unbalanced. The handsome Ronaldo, however, had become something of a cultural icon, more recognisable to casual followers.

 

The treble choke

Bayern had deserved their tight win over Real. By chance, the final was to be at their own home ground in Munich. It would have been a classic if it had been Bayern vs. Barcelona, Europe’s best to be tested in a final in their opponents’ home, but Chelsea had arrived there exhausted instead with four key players suspended. Bayern also had a more scattered three players who would miss out, but on their turf against such a line-up it had to be a certainty. Without playing Barca, Bayern – a classy team but still a work in progress, not even the best team in Germany – were going to be Europeans Champions by default.

But they threw it away, three times, and lost the unlosable final. Chelsea were so threadbare that they gave holding midfielder Ryan Bertrand a Champions League debut, and spent all 120 minutes defending. After they missed their chances, Bayern finally scored when Thomas Muller’s header bounced down, up and in off the crossbar past Cech’s face with just seven minutes to go. The crowd began humming in victory, but Chelsea launched their one attack of the match as injury time approached. Didier Drogba, in his eighth and last year for Chelsea, their signature player, performed the signature move of his Chelsea career, getting his head to Chelsea’s one corner kick and putting a magnificent header into the top corner, so powerful that keeper Manuel Neuer couldn’t keep it out even though he got his hand to it.

Drogba achieved the opposite of redemption when he soon conceded a penalty in extra time, just as in Barcelona willingly back to help defend but without the defensive skill to pull it off. Just as in Barcelona, the penalty was squandered, Robben hitting a tame shot that Cech went the right way for.

The shootout, all Chelsea could have realistically hoped for from the beginning, was Chelsea’s now or never moment in the Champions League, and Juan Mata missed their first kick. After Neuer himself made the score 3-1, Chelsea appeared beaten right up until the moment they won it, evoking a “Huh?” reaction. First Lampard, with Chelsea down one save, scored when a miss would have all but ended it. Then Bayern’s Olic missed, but Cole still faced a kick down 3-2. A miss would have presented Schweinsteiger with the winning penalty as in Madrid, but Cole buried it, and suddenly Schweinsteiger was up in sudden death. He tried to sucker Cech but failed as Cech, the real hero of the campaign, just got a fingertip to feather the ball onto the post.

It was a credit to Bayern that with the game suddenly lost, two of their players immediately rushed over to put an arm around Schweinsteiger. Drogba with the last kick of his Chelsea life had the once in a lifetime chance that Terry had not been able to take four years earlier. Months earlier in a similar epochal moment for his country he had missed a penalty in the African Nations Cup final for Cote d’Ivoire against Zambia, but this time he took only a two-step run and easily buried the ball into the low corner. The men in blue had finally, finally done it. All of the luck they had missed in the 2000s had been heavily concentrated into this one campaign.

 

Marty Gleason

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