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Football | Champions League

Xavi Hernandez © Action Images

Thrashing signals end of Barca era



Barcelona's humiliation in their 4-0 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich on Tuesday night confirmed the suspicion of the clash between the two coming at a crossover point between a Barca on the wane and a Bayern ready to impose its own era of dominance.

Bayern are hardly newcomers to the European top table - should they complete their passage to next month's final at Wembley it will be their third final in four years - but the fact they still haven't won the competition since 2001 creates the impression that their best is still to come.

As good as the German champions were in Tuesday's semifinal first leg, it was the destruction of a Barca side lauded the world over for the past five years that captivated most.

Semifinal disappointment is nothing new. Indeed in their sixth consecutive trip to the last four of the Champions League, this will surely be a fourth defeat.

However, the manner of this defeat was different - there was no hard luck story, no bus parked in front of the opposition goal. Barca were well beaten in every facet and even the proudest among their squad had to acknowledge it.

"They have thrashed us," said Gerard Pique. "All we can do is congratulate Bayern," added Xavi.

That Bayern were so good should have been no surprise. The Bavarians have already wrapped up their domestic league title in record time and seem set to break every record in the book when it comes to points accumulated, goals scored and conceded. But the most galling thing for Barca must be how easy combatting their once sainted tiki-taka style now appears to be.

So far this season Barca have been beaten by Celtic, Real Sociedad, AC Milan, Real Madrid on three occasions, and now Bayern. Every one of these opponents gained their advantage from set-pieces and counter-attacks.

Bayern executed that plan to perfection, taking advantage of their physical superiority to score their first two goals from corners before exposing the space in behind Barca's full-backs once they had to chase the game.

Even when Barca had the ball their threat was minimal. As in the last-16 first-leg defeat to Milan, they registered just one shot on target and even that was a weak effort from centre-back Marc Bartra.

It was easy to point towards a clearly unfit Lionel Messi as the reason Barca didn't get going in an attacking sense, but while the Argentine's remarkable goalscoring record in the past few seasons has rewritten the record books time and again, it has also masked the lack of others chipping in with significant numbers of goals.

On the two occasions in the past five years when Barca have won the Champions League, Messi was ably assisted. In 2008/09 Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry combined for 62 goals, while Messi managed 38 and in 2010/11, Pedro and David Villa contributed 55 to the Argentine's 53. So far this season Villa is the closest to Messi's 57 with just 14.

Moreover, the Catalans are now paying on the field for mistakes off it. Big-name and big-money signings such as Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas have not paid dividends, while their reluctance to match big-money bids from Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern for more defensive-minded targets Thiago Silva and Javi Martinez last summer has cruelly exposed a backline crippled by injuries.

As a club, Barca already know too well about the cyclical nature of football. Their greatest side prior to this one won four consecutive titles under the tutelage of Johan Cruyff in the early 90s until a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final. The next season they finished fourth and the title didn't return to Catalonia for four years.

For 19 years that remained Barca's worst European defeat away from the Camp Nou, but Munich shouldn't be to Messi's generation what Milan was to Cruyff's "Dream Team". Indeed, should results go their way they could be crowned Spanish champions this weekend.

But their aura as the most feared side in Europe has been removed. That aura was created during the early stages of Pep Guardiola's reign and is one he will inherit once more when returns next season, in charge of Bayern.

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