Pep Guardiola became the latest coach to learn what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Lionel Messi’s brilliance on Wednesday night. But his Bayern Munich side sit on the verge of a Champions League exit as much for the quality of those missing as the genius wearing the Barcelona number 10.
With Messi in the line-up, Barca were always likely to have that little something extra available to them in the first leg of their semi-final. Without the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and David Alaba, the Roten were always likely to curse their inability to provide their own X-Factor.
Not that Guardiola didn’t have a good go with what for much of the game looked set to be a risky tactical masterstroke.
There were plenty of observers left scratching their heads in the opening moments as they came to terms with Bayern having set up with just three defenders up against Barca’s famed front three. The defensive trio quickly set out their stall, pushing high and attempting to pin the Catalans back with wide pressing from Thomas Muller and Juan Bernat.
It was through one such movement that Robert Lewandowski had a glorious chance, but he just misjudged his slide as he attempted to steer in a low cross from the right and could only scuff the ball as a result. Muller and Bernat being no Robben and Ribery, the approach didn’t really pay too many dividends.
And Rafinha, playing on the left side of the back three, is no David Alaba either. The Brazilian was caught out of position as Luis Suarez bore down on goal and while Manuel Neuer’s outstretched boot kept the Uruguayan out, it was one of many moments in which Bayern looked ragged and ripe for picking off at will.
When Guardiola changed things around and moved to a flat back four, Bayern’s threat in the Barca half remained and suddenly there were fewer clear-cut chances at the other end. And with Manuel Neuer intercepting anything that was played in behind, the Germans’ shape proved infinitely more sturdy.
Just as Pep had set Barcelona on their current path by dreaming up a couple of formations in which they could succeed, so he has taken Bayern to another level by coaxing a flexibility from them. And here he was showing that he could make the in-game changes necessary at the top level too.
Bayern became one of few teams to dominate possession away from home against Barcelona. Suddenly the Blaugrana had had the ball taken from them in their own playground.
But great tactics can only take you so far, and the lack of Robben, Ribery and Alaba was always likely to stymie their progress. Would the shape Bayern originally set up with have worked with their first XI out? Quite possibly. Would Bayern have lost 3-0 whatever the formation with those three available? Probably not.
Yet just as Guardiola appeared to have gained the upper hand on Luis Enrique, Barca’s trump card played the ultimate hand.
There can be simply no accounting for what Lionel Messi did in the space of three minutes to turn the tie on its head. Guardiola was the man who first ensured that Barcelona did everything possible to get the best out of the Argentine, and never was it more clear that Messi still has an inimitable ability to take a game away from any opponent.
“The result is not fitting,” said Bayern skipper Philipp Lahm afterwards to ZDF. “We did okay for most of the match, but the fact we allowed Barca to hit us with three counters at home is so bitter. We made it way too easy for them.”
Bayern, though, will doubtless wonder what might have been. If they had had their own joker in the pack in Robben, would they have triumphed? If Ribery was available, could they have pulled away from Barca long before Messi did what he did? With Alaba in the side, would Messi have come up against somebody who could get just that little bit closer to him at key times?
We will never know, but what we can be sure of is that Guardiola will be ruing his bad luck as he prepares his squad for the impossible mission of turning around a 3-0 deficit over the next six days.