Bayern's Thomas Muller, 2nd left, scores their fourth goal during the Champions League semifinal first leg soccer match between Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona in Munich, Germany, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Friday, April 26, 2013 4:11 am
Column: Why Barca is 'more than a club'
By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
They get "hammered," "knocked out," or rendered "unrecognizable."
And that's just the good news.
This is what happens when a team sets the bar as high as Barcelona has: Every loss in a big game is immediately pronounced the end of an era. Every moment not spent hoisting another trophy must mean the sky is crashing down.
The story of their demise has been written so often of late that headline writers keep one ready for either occasion. Guess which ones they trotted out after the 4-0 beating Bayern Munich laid on the Spanish side in Champions League semifinal play earlier this week.
"Changing of the guard" was the most popular, and there may yet be plenty of truth in that. Bayern Munich has played steely soccer for the better part of three seasons now, and they're more skillful and imaginative than any German side, maybe ever. Throw in fellow Bundesliga member Borussia Dortmund's 4-1 win over Barca rival Real Madrid in the other Champions League semi and there's no doubting that German soccer is on the rise.
But here's the short list of what Bayern would have to do just to get on equal footing: win two Champions League titles and reach three semifinals, three domestic league cups and two club world cups.
Besides, Barca isn't going anywhere.
Never mind that what was - and still might be - the best soccer team anywhere still has Lionel Messi, the best player on the planet, and another handful who aren't far behind. Or that Barcelona has won 15 of the last 19 titles it has competed for the last few years, and could wrap up No. 16, Spain's La Liga title, as early as Saturday.
"When the things don't go your way you have to count to 10, wait until everyone calms down a little and takes time to think and use reason," Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "If we want to keep competing like we have been and fight for titles, we need to improve many things."
No argument there, not after the way Bayern Munich dismantled what had been the most creative and consistent attacks in the game, and turned elements of it back on Barcelona itself. The Spanish side looked weary at first, out of ideas by the middle and downright desperate at the end. It was a dismal performance that tied off a two-month stretch uncharacteristically chockfull of them.
In their first Champions League outing against Paris St. Germain, then AC Milan, and in back-to-back losses to hated league rival Real, Barcelona had looked much the same. But in the second-leg game of each game, Messi, the incomparable engine at the heart of the team, rode to the rescue late. He was fighting off injuries throughout that same stretch and accounts that described Messi as "hamstrung" against Bayern might have been more accurate than the authors intended.
Like nearly everyone at Barcelona at the moment, he is out of gas and out of sorts. Coach Tito Vilanova has been undergoing treatment for a saliva gland tumor for much of the season and Messi, a sensitive sort, conceded the mood at the club was subdued. They know there won't be any coming back against Bayern in the second leg of this one, brave words aside.
"We have to believe that we can do it, that we have a chance to do so," Iniesta said. "Four goals is very difficult, but if we have even the slightest chance we have to try. I can't say that we can score five times against them, but we have to go out looking to win, as if it were a final."
Stranger things have happened, but they won't. Not this time. Losing gets tiring after a while, but so does winning. Barcelona hasn't forgot how to play soccer, it simply needs time to catch its breath. Club vice president Josep Bartomeu made clear this week he intends to bring Vilanova back, and keep the nucleus of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique, and Sergio Busquets.
For several seasons now, the most-often rumored big acquisition has been Neymar, the young Brazilian who's spurned overtures from a number of big European clubs to stay at Santos, at least until his homeland hosts the 2014 World Cup. A more reasonable target might be Dortmund central defender Mats Hummels, who won't come cheap. But Barca's defense, never stout, is getting old and in need of repair.
A 4-0 loss, good as Bayern was on the night, still does not happen by accident. In truth, Barcelona spent its entire Champions League campaign just hanging on. They finally let go.
After the run they've been on, and the season they've had to endure, that's not a shame. Just a loss, and nothing more.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.