Bayern find the missing pieces
The Germany versus Spain new rivalry, briefly aborted at Euro 2012, was revived in the 2013 Champions League. Both countries had benefitted from bottom-up planning that put the premium on possession football throughout the land. Bayern Munich drafted in two further players who were the missing pieces and turned them from one of equals to one without equals, an incredible juggernaut. Up front was the Croat Mario Mandzukic, a star of Euro 2012, a tall Ibrahimovic body double, more consistent than Gomez who had had his fifteen minutes of fame. In the middle of the defensive midfield came, ironically, a Germanic-style Spaniard named Javi Martinez, a Patrick Vieira-type player who when it came time to face his famous Barca countrymen showed them who was the new boss.
Bayern were incredibly prolific in brushing aside Arsenal and Juventus away from home, but bizarrely almost blew it at home (0-2) against the ever fragile Arsenal. It was a worry, but in the end, no matter. They had a classic semi to come against Barcelona, both sets of players somewhat doubling as the German and Spanish national teams.
On the other side of the draw was Borussia Dortmund versus Real Madrid. Dortmund were a thrilling, rising young team, the German Champions for two years running; while Real were disintegrating and on their last chance under Mourinho, about to lose their third narrow semi-final in a row, comparable to that club’s futility of the 80s. Evidently there had always been some intangible missing factor in this team who always seemed on the verge of dominance. The mob-like torch that Mourinho had angrily wielded ended up setting fire to his own house, and he had finally lost his kudos in Europe. The next year only Chelsea would take him, seemingly a backward course for him.
So, Germany versus Spain times two. After the German first legs, the scores were 4-0 and 4-1 and it was clear that Barca and Real were yesterday’s news.
Bayern had become beautiful. Thomas Muller was back at the top level. Arjen Robben was still around, one of the world’s best, most skilled and most consistent players whenever his fragile hamstrings allowed him the odd half-season of playing time. He was more a powerful dribbler than an intricate one, his long left-footed shots deadly. He was on a redemption mission after both the 2010 World Cup final and the lost Chelsea final last year, in which his missed penalty had condemned Bayern.
Bayern Munich majestically swept Barcelona aside 4-0 and then 3-0 in Spain. Leo Messi for the first time in years had his injury problems, despite playing virtually every game of every year. Barca revealed their complete latter-day dependence on him by exacerbating his injuries. He played only a fraction of the two-leg semi-final. Without him Barca were so, so weak, swatted aside by a Bayern who did all the same ball circulation things Barcelona did, only with infinite more power, individual strength and direction. Barca had worked hard to fortuitously survive to the semis, only for this iconic 7-0 mark to be against their name forever. From the look of it Xavi and Co had won Euro 2012 just in time, right before the decline.
Who are Borussia Dortmund?
Borussia Dortmund against Real Madrid was something like the secondary-level Germany vs. Spain matchup. Dortmund’s players were the younger, latter-Gen Y Germans, the reinforcements to the Lahm generation such as attackers Mario Goetze and Marco Reus who finally helped take Germany to the top in 2014. Dortmund had won a miracle quarter-final against yet another Spanish team, an interesting small town team that Spain occasionally produces in Europe, Malaga. Dortmund scrambled two injury-time goals together amidst horrendous missed offside calls (on both sides), on both goals refusing to panic, based on low centres to teammates and tap-ins. Their first goal against Malaga had also been a fine example of how their swift passing exchanges worked.
This semi-final first leg produced the best individual performance in the history of the Champions League. The face of the team, Polish forward Robert Lewandowski, scored four goals against Real, all four of them masterful. There was a volleyed tap-in from a cross, a soft low outside-footed finish when through on goal after halftime, a superlative drag and shoot into the top corner a few minutes later (“The reason we watch football,” coach Jurgen Klopp called the goal), and even his last penalty was authoritatively hammered into the roof with just more than an hour gone.
Germany was the word. The final between the two, rivals to the point of being outright enemies, was a wonderful showpiece, an advertisement for what German football had become. Dortmund applied savage pressure for the first twenty-five minutes and there was a sense that for Bayern, the choke was happening all over again. The hustle produced no goals, however, and after halftime Bayern turned the screw, Mandzukic lollying in an innocuous-looking open goal tap-in on the hour. Dortmund’s penalty, their miracle clearance off the line and goalie Weidenfeller’s saves in hindsight only prolonged the inevitable. When it came, it came in a trickle. Robben of course, given all he’d gone through, was the one who wriggled through on full time and, first looking to go to the left, was able to sucker Weidenfeller with a small tap to his right. The ball took so long to reach the net that the Bayern players were celebrating en masse before it even crossed the line.
Either way it had gone, the result would be a fillip for the German national team. This was a first international trophy at last for the Lahms, Neuers, Schweinsteigers, Mullers and Co, and for Robben.
The dream final at last
That summer was the dream final that had taken years to come about, Brazil versus Spain at the famous Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the final of the 2013 Confederations Cup. Brazil, a young team still learning their game and their best eleven step by step, were represented by the energetic, young, dribbling, dancing Neymar, the newest ridiculously-skilled forward from their historical conveyor belt. His handsome face with orange dyed hair was on every TV commercial in Brazil, and in 2014 he would at age twenty-two face the daunting task of singlehandedly reversing a sixty-year old national neurosis for two hundred million compatriots. He did it with aplomb in the practice tournament in 2013. For Brazil this tournament was far more poetic than the real deal ended up being – Uruguay themselves were re-met and this time Brazil beat them 2-1 in a tense semi-final in Belo Horizonte. Then came their first final at the Maracana since 1950.
Spain’s forward options by 2013 were almost non-existent, everything seemingly funnelled through Barca second-string Pedro on the right. They had their moments, however. The first was their first match, Spain when seen live astounding the Brazilian crowd who witnessed the pass-and-move for the first time. The other moment of greatness again came via the penalties in the semis against Italy, their innocuous midfielders coldly scoring seven straight penalties on the back foot to somehow win the day.
Brazil scored in the second minute against Spain, who had never had to come back from a deficit before. Immediately down 0-1, Pedro was put through five minutes before halftime and angled the ball beyond Brazil’s keeper, but Brazil’s lead was preserved by David Luiz’s miracle goal line clearance. Brazil went down at once for Neymar to hammer in for 2-0. After halftime Fred identically scored in the second minute as he had in the first half and Brazil, who for a decade had forever alternated terrific and mediocre years, had thrashed the team of the age. They were back.