England has long since fallen. France, too. Even Germany couldn’t put up much resistance, so what chance did Holland and Cyprus have? What chance does Italy have on Saturday?
Barcelona, with head coach Luis Enrique saying very little in the role of Khal Drogo, has thrown the champions of Europe’s finest leagues out of the Champions League one at a time, making its way north to Berlin for Saturday’s final, where it face the one major league winner it’s yet to topple: Serie A winners Juventus. With five other league winners discarded, the new Spanish champion has already gone on a historic run.
As recently as January, it was a trek which looked impossible, something like Barça’s Clásico rival Real Madrid would achieve. Comparisons had even been made between Carlo Ancelotti’s side, which had just been on a 22-game winning run, and Josep Guardiola’s Barça team, which held power over Europe for four domineering years between 2008 and 2012.
“This may be the strongest Real Madrid side we’ve ever seen, technically, tactically and physically speaking,” then Granada coach Joaquin Caparros said in November, though not everyone agreed.
“No, not really, Madrid isn’t comparable to Guardiola’s Barcelona,” scoffed Andoni Zubizarreta, who was still Barça’s sporting director at the time when asked about the similarities. He probably would have scoffed if the question was about Enrique’s Barcelona side, too. “We have an obsession about comparing things,” he added. “Life is richer when we’re building things for the future.”
But as the European season reaches its final battle, it’s all about the present. Ancelotti is no longer in a job, while Enrique’s army is tearing things up, breaking records and winning La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies. If it beats Juve at the Olympic Stadium this weekend, it will record its 50th win of a season which was under attack and close to retreating five months ago.
It would also seal Europe’s eighth ever treble, an objective Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve also has its sights on; although, if it’s Barça who take the thrown, it will become the first ever European side to complete a second treble — its first arrived as recently as 2009, when Guardiola was the ruler.
The route it has taken to this year’s final has not been an easy one, either. Since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992, ironically allowing teams who were not champions of their country to enter, it has been rare to see teams overthrowing so many actual champions. For the first time this millennium, though, Barça can achieve something that few sides have even had the chance to do.
Clad in that garish yellow-y armor it has, Barcelona turned up in Manchester, the home of England’s champion, and made Manuel Pellegini’s City look like it was fighting with eight men for half an hour. Luis Suárez, back on English soil after leaving Liverpool last summer, struck twice as Barça took control of its Round of 16 tie. Lionel Messi master-class and an Ivan Rakitić goal killed things off a few weeks later when City tried to claim Barcelona.
Then the Ligue 1 champions fell in Paris. Once again, Suárez was the hero. This time he nutmegged poor David Luiz twice on route to two goals, leading to a splurge of Internet memes demeaning Paris Saint-Germain’s 50 million euro purchase and his open legs.
If those two battles had been tough but predictable, the next hurdle was mouthwateringly unpredictable. After cutting down England and France, Germany’s Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich, led by the calm and collected Guardiola, who played such a significant part in Barça’s history, stood in the Catalan’s way.
Despite the doubts, Germany fell, too. The “unstoppable” Lionel Messi, as Guardiola had dubbed him the day before the first leg, cut loose in the second half and destroyed the Bavarians with his left foot, embarrassing poor Jerome Boateng in the process (more memes followed). Bayern restored some pride back in Munich, but it was far too little, far too late.
Dropping back to the group stages, more champions have been trampled on. Eredivisie representatives Ajax were defeated, as were APOEL, who had marched into the competition flying the flag for the Cypriot First Division.
The only significant country missing from that list is Spain, but its champions also enjoyed a torrid time when confronted with Barça this season. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, who is perhaps more suited to war lexicon than any other European side, faced Enrique’s men four times and lost four times. Twice Atleti was beaten in the league and twice in the King’s Cup, which Barça won against Athletic Club last weekend, becoming the first side to win all its games in the competition since Valencia in 1954.
Now there is just one country left to be ticked off the list of Europe’s big five leagues. Italy’s Serie A champions: Allegri, Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez. Juventus.
To put that all into perspective, last season’s winners, Real Madrid, only beat one league champion in the knockout stages on route to La Décima: Germany’s Bayern Munich. The year before, Bayern beat two league champions when it won the European Cup, an amount no side has ever bettered since the Round of 16 was added in 2003. Nobody except Barcelona, that is, who beat the champions of England, Germany and France in 2009.
Now Barça intend to go one better; to really strengthen its hold over Europe’s elite; and to win a Champions League by following a path which gives credence to the competition’s name.
“We have played a great Champions League against the French champion, the German champions and the English Champions,” Enrique acknowledged on Tuesday, the uniqueness of this run of fixtures clearly not lost on him. “Now we play against the Italian champion,” he added, for emphasis.
Barça’s 2009 success took in Lyon, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, three of which had won their domestic league the previous season. In 2011, though, just one of Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Madrid and Man United came into the Champions League as champions of their country. Those name show, champions or not, a route to the final is always going to be tough.
But there is something special about this Barcelona side having the chance to win Europe’s biggest prize by beating so many league winners. It’s almost as if it was the idea behind the competition when it was created back in 1955.