Champions LeagueFootball

Five years on from humiliation at Messi’s hands, can Jerome Boateng and Bayern Munich exact their revenge?

August 11, 2020

IT wasn’t the feint alone that sent Jerome Boateng twisting to the ground, laying prostrate on the Camp Nou turf, powerless.

It was the heft of his opponent’s reputation and its paralysing effect on defenders. It was the strain of trying to tame the most fearsome frontline in all of football – a futile endeavour at that point, as the 2014-15 season approached its crescendo and Barcelona raced toward what felt like an inevitable clean sweep of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League.

It was the way Lionel Messi knew your next move before you knew it yourself, and how he always seemed to have his next dozen mapped out.

Belly down, utterly beaten, Boateng watched on as Messi lifted a right-footed shot over Manuel Neuer, his second goal of a Champions League semi-final first leg he’d bent to his will. Exactly a month later, on 6 June 2015, Barcelona strolled past Juventus in Berlin to complete their Treble.

But five years on, as Barca prepare to face Bayern in the Champions League once again, this time at the quarter-final stage, things have rarely been so good for Messi and co.

Messi is, of course, still magnificent. He claimed a sixth Ballon d’Or last December, has won the European Golden Shoe three times in the last four years and, at 33, became the first player since Thierry Henry for Arsenal in 2003 to score 20-plus goals and register 20 assists in a single season in one of the continent’s major leagues.

In the time since he sent Boateng sprawling, though, the club has crumbled around him.

Xavi departed at the end of the 2015 season, and midfield cohort Andres Iniesta left for semi-retirement in Japan in 2018. Neither has yet been adequately replaced. The hubris of Barcelona’s board meant they were wholly unprepared and completely caught off guard, despite the warning signs, when Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain three years ago. And while they received a world-record £198m fee for the Brazilian, that money and more has been squandered trying to fill the Neymar-shaped hole in the Barca attack.

Ousmane Dembele has been beset by injuries and accusations of unprofessionalism; Philippe Coutinho, a club-record £142m signing from Liverpool in January 2019, was a bust and is currently on loan at Bayern; and Antoine Griezmann, a World Cup winner and long-time La Liga standout, always looked like being difficult tactical fit for an attack including Messi, and so it has proven.

Managers have come and gone, too. A second-place league finish saw Luis Enrique, mastermind of 2015’s Treble, depart at the end of the 2016-17 campaign. Back-to-back titles weren’t enough to earn his replacement, Ernesto Valverde, a full third season at the Camp Nou helm. And Quique Setien, a juego de pocición devotee of supposed Cruyffian sensibilities, has had little discernible impact since taking charge in January this year.

Barca’s budget, their remaining talent and the unyielding brilliance of their best player has allowed for continued La Liga success, with three titles won in the last five seasons. But Champions League glory has proved elusive. They have only once reached the semi-finals since they vanquished Bayern at that stage in 2015.

In the last two seasons, embarrassing collapses in the quarters and semis, against Roma and Liverpool respectively, have exposed to the world their deep flaws of poor squad construction and an over-reliance on Messi. Meanwhile, rivals Real Madrid, who this season have stolen Barca’s La Liga crown, have won the Champions League four times in the last seven years.

The story of Barcelona’s last half-decade is one of considerable domestic success in spite of myriad missteps and blatant mismanagement at all levels. But, considering continental disappointments, it is also a tale of underachievement and the failure to fully maximise the gifts of the game’s greatest-ever player during his peak years.

Friday is chance for Boateng to get his own back. The experienced German centre-back is in the midst of a fine season, and Bayern, runaway Bundesliga champions yet again, are purring. A commanding display against Barcelona would help banish the ghost of the that goal, haunting him in the form of gifs that never go away, replays that never relent.

For Messi, his task is the same as it has been for too long now: to paper over the cracks in Barca that are swelling into chasms and threatening to swallow what’s left of his prime.