‘Underestimate a champion, and he will knock you out.’
There are many reasons why talk of new eras and great German teams is wildly premature. Barcelona have tasted the canvas a few times throughout the Champions League semi finals, but they, along with Real Madrid and Spanish football in general, should not be dismissed so easily.
Problems at the Nou Camp have been hidden by a cruise through La Liga. The cracks are there, but they are not unfixable. Player for player, medal for medal, this is still the best collection in the world. Perhaps ever. Bayern Munich’s history of choking when it matters, and the fact that they haven’t actually done anything great yet, should not be ignored.
Barcelona had built one of the all-time great sides, but they are in a transition. While the core remains, they need tweaking; not reconstructive surgery. Carlos Puyol’s injuries and age have created a hole in the centre of defence, exposing Pique more than he would like. David Villa is 31 now and has been injured and out of form for some time. Alexis Sanchez is yet to live up to expectations, and Pedro is not a player of the very highest calibre. Xavi’s decline has not started yet, but it must be planned for.
A world-class centre back is essential. Talk of Mats Hummels and, optimistically, Thiago Silva has been heard, and either would do swimmingly. In attack, things are a little trickier. Finding somebody to fit in with the way Barca’s front three play is difficult. That even Ibrahimovich failed speaks volumes. Messi could be pushed out wide to allow for a new central striker, and predictable rumours persist about Neymar, of Nike fame.
What they need is a floater, a drifter, a striker-winger-goal-scoring-goal-maker. Luis Suarez, in other words. The Xavi connundrum is solved by Fabregas. The media have given him a hard time since he criminally left Arsenal. He knew what he was getting into. Every game he plays now is a treat, before slotting perfectly into Xavi’s spot when the time comes. Remember, the young midfielder was a true world beater in the Premier League, and he hasn’t turned into Fernando Torres since.
Add the right signings to the existing squad, and come up with a reason why Barcelona are finished. World-class is thrown about too much. It should define ‘one of the very best in the world’. Currently, Barca’s starting 11 has seven players of such stature. Messi could fairly claim to be the finest ever to play the game. The home-grown players have won multiple Champions Leagues, European Championships and the World Cup in the last five years. The club has added 14 trophies to the cabinet since 2008. The history of these players makes a joke of suggestions that Barcelona are spent.
Both German sides were impressive, make no mistake. But they were flattered by horrendously below par performances from their Spanish opponents. Barcelona’s totally inept showing has been coming, and was a culmination off all of their issues. Real’s performances were better, but, inexplicably, some of their most reliable performers had disasters. Xabi Alonso forgot how to pass, while Ronaldo and others missed glorious chances. It would be interesting to see what would have happened had everyone been at their best.
However, nothing should be taken away from Bayern or Dortmund. Except it should have been Bayern and Malaga. Maybe.
Having swept away all before them this season, Bayern are, unquestionably, an impressive team. And they are a team. Individually brilliant, better together. Feasibly they could win a lovely treble this season, which would really be fantastically good. But great? Better than a Barcelona side proven to be great? To be great, as hype is already calling them, they need to do something that is great. Basically, that is to win things for more than one season. Retaining the Champions League would qualify as greatness. Doing what Barcelona have already done would do the trick, but they have a long way to go until that.
We have an obsession in England of wanting to copy nations. Not long ago, there was a rush to turn all of English football into a scaled-up Barcelona setup. Now the German ‘model’ is what our grass-roots six-year-olds should be following. Is the German model that successful, at club level? England, Italy and Spain are some way ahead in European Cup wins.
Bayern Munich; ‘F.C. Hollywood’. Run by every charismatic ex-German international you can think of. Last year, they finished second in all three of their major competitions. Undoubtedly there is class throughout the squad, but, in terms of medals won, that class hasn’t amounted to much. Many of the German members are serial runners-up at club and international level. Next year’s World Cup will tell us a lot more. Spain’s national side have the hoodoo over Germany’s, and a reverse of that would give a stronger case for the passing of an era.
For now, things should be kept in perspective. We have just witnessed superb football being played by two good sides. Neither has done anything other than win a semi-final, and for that reason we must not yet elevate them too high. Barcelona F.C. consists of proven winners, many with years ahead of them. For that reason, we should beware of putting them in the bin so soon.
Very good, just not great.