In a pre-match interview, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge declared that Alphonso Davies “will take care of Messi” in the impending UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. He went even boldly further, declaring the 19 year old Canadian international “a good Messi stopper”.
When one considers the 6 Balon d’Ors that Messi has garnered over the years, and the manner in which he has harvested them, one would think that Rummenigge didn’t know much about football, albeit being club president of Bayern Munich.
In terms of plans, Quique Setien fell short. His plan was as successful as APM engaging AAM as his race partner in the last elections. In the modern game, it is expected of fullbacks to be swashbuckling marauders on the flank, pushing to be more in attack than defence, for the more you attack the more the opponents defend. This works magically on Barca’s right, largely due to the fact that Messi operates from that flank, and opponents busy themselves with Messi leaving Nelson Semedo with space and time to make good attacking decisions.
The first time Semedo overlapped and lost the ball, Gerald Pique covered him. In the 4th minute, Semedo went AWOL again on the right and Serge Gnabry robbed Sergi Roberto off the ball and found Ivan Perisic in acres of space. He crossed it and the ball found Lewandowski who cushioned it down for Thomas Muller to finish into the bottom corner. Barcelona drew level, exploiting Bayern’s high line. A fortuitous cross from David Alba was turned into his own net by the back tracking left-footed David Alaba, cutting a cross intended for Luis Suarez with his right foot past Manuel Neuer. In the 9th minute, Setien’s plan was revealed. Overload Bayern’s left, and Semedo cut inside and slid it for Luis Suarez who should have scored but Manuel Neuer stood firm. Barcelona were knocking on the door, though. Messi’s cross went all the way through a frozen Bayern Munich defence but fortunately for them, the ball came off the upright. However, Bayern Munich always seemed to find plenty of space and time on the right side of the Barca half.
Bayern Munich’s full pitch press was effective. Ter Stegen, who has great ball distribution with his feet, was hoofing the ball straight to the Bayern midfield players. Frenkie de Jong was not given the time to take his many touches on the ball and when he did attempt some long passes to release his teammates, the ball ended up on the touchline and not his teammates feet, as is usually the case.
In the 20th minute, Messi cut in and made his traditional slaloming run and fired at goal but the effort was tame and Neuer safely dove right.
The second time Semedo went walkabout, he was actually ahead of his central midfielder, Sergi Roberto, who was easily dispossessed off the ball by Serge Gnabry, for the second time actually. Gnabry saw Ivan Perisic in acres of space where Semedo had vacated, and set the Croatian international free. Perisic thumped the ball into the net past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.
The pace was frenetic. The tactics employed were dynamic. A lesser football was going to capitulate. Alphonso Davies was given the instructions to tuck in in to the middle and shadow Messi, allowing Sergi Roberto or Semedo to go wide, trusting that David Alaba and Jerome Boateng to cut out the crosses.
Thiago is a conductor. I’m not talking about intoxicated, loudmouthed conductor that collects money from customers on the Nancholi-Zalala bus. I’m talking about the engine room that makes the Bavarian machine tick. Serge Gnabry was everywhere on the pitch, but his goal was all Thiago Alcantara, a former Barcelona player who failed to make it at Camp Nou due to the dominance of Xavi and Iniesta. Thiago began the play with one touch passes with his teammates, spraying the ball here and there before finding Leon Goretzka who chipped the ball. Gnabry lost Clement Lenglet and thumped the ball home, to leave Barcelona staring into a deep hole.
Barcelona players seemed shell-shocked and devoid of innovation. They insisted on trying to play the ball out. It seemed as if the only time one could see Sergio Busquests was when Barcelona were floundering. Ter Stegen put Busquests in trouble with a loose pass. Lewandowski stole the ball but Ter Stegen redeemed himself with a smart save. The Bayern plan was to exploit the space on Barca’s right defence, and there were acres there.
As the game was closing in on half an hour, another cross from Bayern’s left was flicked on further by Serge Gnabry in the Barca 18-yard zone, finding Joshua Kimmich on the other side of the pitch. Kimmich sent the ball into the danger zone again, and Muller stuck out a foot and it was a goal. The entire goal embodied Bayern Munich’s determination to win.
Barcelona had shown their weak underbelly. Busquests was ambling everywhere. Arturo Vidal was late for every challenge. The young Dutchman, de Jong, did not even bother to show up for the game.
Granted, Messi is unhappy with his teammates, being accustomed to the high standards of Xavi and Iniesta as his field generals. Barcelona have not done the business. The world is known for leaders who have had their fair share of mediocre support systems. One former head of state had Adzonzi, for instance. But Barcelona knew they had to ring the changes, so the more attacking Antoine Griezmann was introduced for the Adzonzi-like Sergi Roberto. On the touchline, warming up were Ivan Rakitic, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig. Other than Rakitic you are excused to have the same look some party politburos had when Adzonzi was announced at COMESA.
In the 56th minute, Bayern were high again, and Suarez showed a bit of life, turning away from Boateng and putting it past Neuer. Ironically, it might have been Alphonso Davies who played everyone onside.
Messi was quiet. Too silent. Absent.
But still, for all the pregame talk about Alphonso Davies, I personally was waiting for that special moment. Davies had to do something to live up to his club president’s words. There were players of high quality everywhere on the pitch. Champions League winners, World Cup winners, Bundesliga champs, La Liga champs, all over the pitch. And Davies was in the mix.
One hour had elapsed, so cometh the hour cometh the man. Alphonse Davies picked up a loose ball at the halfway life. He beat Messi, then the lunging Arturo Vidal, skipped several attentions and then got into a one on one against Semedo. He left the statue-like Semedo for dead with a flick of the precious left leg and a drop of the shoulder. For any decent defender, an attacker beating you on the byline is quite unacceptable. Even Gerard Pique was confounded. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t think a defender could be as inept as Semedo was, not taking away from the brilliance of Davies. What was remarkable about this moment is that Davies pronounced himself as a UCL player. He was already a breakout in the Bundesliga.
Alphonso Davies is a phenomenal player. The energy is SKC level. The transformation too.
He was a winger at Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada but was converted into a fullback in the 2019/20 season. He has won an average of 15 one-on-ones per game leading to Bayern winning the Bundesliga and the DFB cup. Alphonso Davies has recorded the fastest ever top speed in Bundesliga history at 14.2kph in a game against Werder Bremen.
Alphonso Davies’ story is a remarkable one. One Hollywood movies are made off. Alphonso’s life started in a Ghanaian refugee camp, born to Liberian parents who had fled civil war. Through the resettlement program his family migrated to Canada when Alphonso was only five.
For all his talk about being a Messi-stopper, stating that Davies hadn’t been outpaced or dribbled past even once this season, Rummenigge forgot to tell us that it is Davies himself who does the dribbling and the outpacing. Deep in the Barca danger zone, he was calm and collected enough to look up, and see, believe this, another defender in the name of Joshua Kimmich. He played the ball to Kimmich’s feet and Kimmich did the rest, burying any hopes of a miraculous comeback.
Instead a sixth goal came, Robert Lewandowski adding with a header from a Philippe Coutinho cross. Philippe Coutinho is actually a Barcelona player who was deemed surplus to requirement in Catalunya and had to take his talents elsewhere. To add insult to injury, Coutinho added two goals of his own, bringing the tally to 8-2. A Champions League classic match.