Barca game far from over

Barca game far from over

Football : Defeat in the Champions League does not spell the end of the road for a team oozing with class

Barca game far from over

The 87th minute came and went. The moment when the last miracle began was the point at which any hopes of another were definitively ended.

Barcelona won a free kick. Neymar did not, as he had against Paris Saint-Germain last month, fizz it into the top corner. Camp Nou did not roar. A Juventus head cleared it, instead, into the sky once more. The ball came back in. It collided, yet again, with a body clad in black and white.

This was not to be another of those nights. There would be no comeback. Barcelona believed, right until the end, that it was possible. Three goals had come in the dying minutes against PSG last month, after all, so why not against Juventus? If anyone could, then Barcelona could: Lionel Messi and Neymar and Luis Suárez, the finest attack ever assembled, the spearhead of a team that can touch the stars.

This, though, was a step too far; this was too much to ask. There were moments when it seemed as if it might happen, as if the magic might return, particularly in a first half when Messi and Neymar both carved out openings, raised the pulse, shredded Italian nerves. But Juventus held firm, jealously guarding the 3-0 advantage it had gained in the first leg last week, and out Barcelona went, absent from the semifinals of the Champions League for the third time in four years.

The temptation, of course, is to declare this the end, to suggest the sun has now set on Barcelona’s golden age. Such a prognosis, though, would be misleading, just as declarations of the demise of Bayern Munich after Real Madrid eliminated the German team on Tuesday are hopelessly exaggerated.

When the Champions League group stage rolls around again in September, both clubs will resume their place among the three favourites to win the competition. Barcelona will still have an attack built around Messi, the greatest player of his generation, and Neymar, his heir apparent. Whoever replaces Luis Enrique as coach will have the pick of reinforcements this summer, too. There will be no especially relevant financial limit on recruitment plans; the only players who might refuse a move will be those destined for one of the game’s other superpowers.

Only a startling loss of form would deprive one of those teams a place in the knockout rounds. Only another exceptional team, or a breathtaking performance from a merely excellent one, will be able to prevent one of them winning it. Barcelona and Bayern — and Real Madrid, too, for that matter — are simply too big, now, to fail in the conventional sense. Their squads are too stocked with talent, their accounts too swelled with cash, their brands too appealing to fans and players alike for them ever to drift into mediocrity.

They might fall short of their own lofty expectations now and again — by definition, in the Champions League, two of the three have to be disappointed every single year — but they will do so on a bungee cord, destined always to return to the skies, far above the teeming masses. It is anachronistic to talk about the end of Barcelona. Barcelona is not finished, and nor will it be, not for the foreseeable future. Like Bayern, it is inoculated, financially and otherwise, against failure.

But if it is not the end of an era, it is nonetheless a watershed moment for the Champions League. For the first time since 2009, only one of Europe’s big three — Real — will be present in the semifinals. This is as close to a transition year as is conceivable in the era of the superclubs.

It is, in truth, more a changing of the guard than a revolution. Juventus played in the final in 2015; Atlético Madrid, very much the Ringo Starr of the quartet who have dominated this tournament for the last few years, is now in its third semifinal in four seasons. Both must now be considered peers, if not quite equals, of their bigger, richer rivals.

It is no less welcome for it, however. Predictability, in sport, is a carcinogen. The appeal of this competition, the most glamorous club soccer can offer, was starting to wither under the unassailable hegemony of Barcelona, Bayern and Real. This has been the most enthralling edition in some time.
Much of the credit for that should go to teams like Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and, in particular, Monaco, and to the set of vibrant young attacking players — Antoine Griezmann, Neymar, Paulo Dybala, Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic — who have illuminated the competition.

For the first time since the Messi/Ronaldo era dawned in the mid-2000s, it is possible to list the players who will shine when those two are, eventually, gone. This season may well be remembered, for example, as the one in which Neymar and Monaco’s Mbappe — on a breakneck upward trajectory — emerged as their regents, ready to rule as soon as they vacate their thrones.

Equally significant, though, is that Barcelona and Bayern, in particular, find themselves forced to consider a question they have not needed to ask for not far off a decade: What comes next? The issue is most pressing in Munich, where Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso are scheduled to retire this summer and Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery, both the wistful side of 30, will doubtless be wondering when it will be time to join them.

“Big clubs always have transitions,” Bixente Lizarazu, a former Bayern defender who is now an ambassador for the club, said last week. “And they can always manage them.”

Bayern has proved that before; Barcelona less so, but it must start to contemplate how to do so now. Messi will be 30 in June; Suárez, Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano have all passed that milestone already. Yet this team is not finished by a draw against Juventus. Barcelona’s elimination, like that of Bayern, does not herald the dawn of an age of giants diminished.

Financial power, and global recognition, means this is merely the turning of a page. This is not the end of Barcelona. It is, in many ways, something more complicated: time to start again.