Messi and Barcelona changed the Champions League forever
A decade ago, Barça showed Europe that playing fearless attacking football could bring glory, but as rivals copy them it seems they are now paying the price for their vision.
Lionel Messi stared at the Anfield turf as bedlam broke out around him, helpless and alone. Somehow – improbably – it had happened again.
Liverpool's incredible 4-0 semi-final win on Tuesday means they have the chance to become the kings of Europe for a sixth time, while arguably the greatest footballer of all time must continue to wait and strive for his fifth Champions League success.
There was a time when everything in this competition seemed ludicrously easy for Messi and his gilded contemporaries at Barcelona. They were a team who won adoration on their way to final victories over Manchester United.
The only problem with capturing the collective imagination is it means everyone is paying attention.
From Rome to the world
When Messi and six fellow La Masia graduates lined up at the Stadio Olimpico in 2009, against the United of Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest, they and rookie coach Pep Guardiola were underdogs.
Despite the confidence gleaned from a domestic double, Barcelona were pegged back as Cristiano Ronaldo waged a one-man war upon their goal early on. Then Andres Iniesta shuffled inimitably into the final third and released Samuel Eto'o to beat Edwin van der Sar at his near post.
From that point, United found themselves strapped to Barça's passing carousel and whirred dizzyingly around. Messi beat Ferdinand to a header and it finished 2-0.
The sides reconvened at Wembley two years later and a 3-1 loss flattered United. Barcelona were on another plane and had defined an era.
The Cruyffian identity
As Guardiola will frequently point out, that Barcelona's team irresistible style – one he has since refined through decorated spells at Bayern Munich and Manchester City – was not his idea. He is simply a keeper of the flame.
Johan Cruyff's Barcelona "Dream Team" of the early 1990s won four consecutive LaLiga titles. Guardiola was at the base of their midfield, the fulcrum of a team steeped in the Cruyffian doctrine of passing football and positional play. Football tactics as ideology and philosophy.
Yet, they needed extra time and a thundering Ronald Koeman free-kick to beat Sampdoria 1-0 and claim a maiden European title at Wembley in 1992. Two years later, Fabio Capello's injury-ravaged but still formidable AC Milan ransacked the romantics 4-0 in an Athens final, aptly leaving Cruyff's celebrated side in ruins.
In elite European football, there was no question pragmatism would continue to reign and it did so, largely unchecked, for another 15 years. Teams dotted with flair, such as Barça's class of 2006, would occasionally prevail. But organisation, clean sheets and priceless away goals remained the hard currency.
The new normal
What set the 2009 and 2011 final wins apart was that, for all the Mes que un club bluster, these were the first European finals Barcelona won by practicing what they preached.
In 2010 and 2012, Guardiola's side were strangled by unflinching hard-nosed defensive efforts from Inter and Chelsea at Camp Nou, but it felt like they had been desperately unlucky rather than naive.
There was an infatuation with Barça's style, with imitations springing up far beyond Guardiola's subsequent places of employment. However, the greatest legacy of that side was the booming message that there was no need to compromise on a tactical vision. Indeed, to do so was an exploitable weakness.
In the 2012-13 Champions League, the Bundesliga dominated. Jupp Heynckes' treble-winning Bayern Munich saw off Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund in the final, Bayern having routed Barça 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-final.
Dortmund held on in their semi with Real Madrid, but only after Klopp's gloriously and rabidly high-tempo outfit thumped Jose Mourinho's team 4-1 in the first leg. The message to fight LaLiga fire with an inferno of your own was clear.
While the past decade has been a time to celebrate beautiful football, it has gone hand in hand with the less-palatable reality of the rich getting richer and preserving their dominance accordingly.
Juventus have won eight consecutive Scudetti, Bayern are on the verge of their seventh straight Bundesliga. A Monaco team swiftly ripped apart by wad-flaunting vultures won Ligue 1 in 2016-17 to punctuate six Paris Saint-Germain triumphs either side, while Barça have claimed eight of 11 in LaLiga.
These heavyweight clubs can indulge the pursuit of an attacking football vision – Barça-inspired or otherwise – to a greater extent than all others. It can be honed within domestic mismatches, where the attacking threat from the opposition is minimal.
The upshot for the Champions League is the major players think first to attack, before attacking some more. All is possible, so why defend cautiously when you don't get to practice that too often? These are teams built for many things but – as Liverpool's remarkable overturning of a 3-0 aggregate deficit on Tuesday showed - extended periods of scrutiny are not among them.
Look at this season alone. Manchester United's heist against PSG in Paris, Tottenham and Manchester City's ludicrous epic, Ajax's fearless dismantling of a Real Madrid dynasty. Every round, conventional wisdom has been kicked further down the road as teams clatter about their business without care for compromise or consequences.
There is also a troubling weight of evidence for Barça. Last season, back at the stadium where they lit this fuse, Roma won 3-0 to progress on away goals after a 4-1 first-leg defeat in the quarter-finals.
A year earlier, Juventus walloped them 3-0 in Turin at the same stage before dusting off some good old-fashioned Catenaccio in the return (it still, just about, has its place). Barça had to overcome a 4-0 thrashing at PSG in the last 16 to get that far. Similarly, Guardiola's Champions League career is now as much about humbling knockout losses as those two initial triumphs.
At Anfield, Messi and Barcelona were given their latest reminder that when you show the world everything is possible, the real danger is all your enemies believing you.
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