Thirteen months ago to the day, Barcelona met Bayern Munich in a Champions League quarter-final. The circumstances were unusual. It was not long after the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, so the contest was played over one leg, on neutral territory in Lisbon. Bayern had just won their eighth successive Bundesliga. Barca had just been deposed as Spanish champions.
The match, the most glamorous, on paper, of that season’s last-eight match-ups, started frenetically. It was 1-1 after seven minutes. Bayern players had scored both goals, David Alaba steering a Jordi Alba cross past his own goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer after Thomas Muller had given Bayern a fourth-minute lead.
It promised a goal-fest. Lionel Messi felt fearful about whose goal-fest it would turn out to be.
Barcelona employees contributed three of the 10 goals on the night. Unfortunately for the Catalan club two of them were scored by Philippe Coutinho, who was rounding off his loan spell at Bayern in what was only his second full season as Barca’s most expensive-ever signing. Coutinho struck Bayern’s goals number seven and eight - against his parent club.
Even when Luis Suarez pulled the score back to 4-2 down with 33 minutes to go, there seemed little hope for Barca, although Antoine Griezmann’s impact off the bench at half-time had improved a dire situation for a period.
Fast forward to Tuesday’s Champions League group phase-opener, the first Barca-Bayern contest since then. Much has changed. Both clubs have different head managers, Ronald Koeman having very promptly replaced the luckless Quique Setien. Bayern, who won the 2020 final under Hansi Flick, have recently appointed 34-year-old Julian Nagelsmann.
Although Nagelsmann has injury doubts for tonight over strikers Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski, he has inherited a squad as strong, on paper, as the one that walloped Barca in Lisbon. Alaba and Jerome Boateng have departed from the defence, but Dayot Upamecano has been signed for €43 million to cover that gap. Bayern are among the favourites for this season’s European Cup.
Koeman can hardly make the same claim of Barcelona. The then and now comparisons with August 2020 are painful, and go beyond the haunting recollection of Lisbon. “Several players suffered a lot after that game,” Koeman acknowledged on Monday.
Several have also left Camp Nou, which is the greater concern. For the first time in 17 years, Barcelona begin a European campaign without Messi, now of Paris Saint-Germain. Suarez is long gone, now joined at Atletico Madrid by Griezmann.
The strikeforce Koeman selects today will look a pale shadow of what he inherited from the luckless Setien, let alone the Messi-Neymar-Suarez trio who won Barca their last Champions League title, in 2015.
Luuk De Jong, the 31-year-old Dutch target man signed on loan from Sevilla on transfer deadline day, may make his debut against Bayern. It is the sort of fixture he might have thought very unlikely to ever feature on his zig-zag career path when he was going through his barren scoring spells at Borussia Monchengladbach (six goals in 36 Bundesliga games) and Newcastle United (no goals in 12 Premier League appearances).
Barcelona have shed superstar forwards in favour of lesser lights largely because of suffocating debts, and a financial crisis exacerbated by Covid-19 emptying stadiums. But they are far from the only fallen heavyweight fearing that the return of supporters to some of Europe’s biggest arenas will confront fans with close-up evidence of lowered standards.
Take Inter Milan, who tomorrow take on Real Madrid in Milan. The echoes of last season’s Champions League meetings between those two clubs will be many. Madrid and Inter, the Italian champions, both struggled when they shared a group, Madrid crawling up from third spot only on the last match day, Inter finishing bottom. And that was while Inter were still coached by Antonio Conte and had Romelu Lukaku up front. Both left during the summer.
Liverpool versus AC Milan, which will open up Group B, has a storied past to catch up on, too, a special resonance for English and Italian football’s most successful clubs in terms of the European Cup. But for Milan, who lost dramatically to Liverpool in the 2005 final, and beat them in Athens two years later, this reunion looks daunting because of their rustiness at this level of competition. Milan are returning to Europe’s most prestigious competition for the first time in seven largely bleak years.
“This match has not come at a great time,” said Koeman yesterday of Bayern’s visit, “because we have had to make a lot of changes.” He could have been speaking for several so-called superclubs.