This weekend, Barcelona entered the stadium of the biggest club in the world and took on its starting lineup with a higher collective Q-Score than the cast of Ocean’s Eleven. The injury-stricken culés were missing their own brightest superstar and in his place featured a player who’s probably sold a grand total of 16 jerseys with his name on them, most of them to his family. In that environment, they Hulk-smashed Real Madrid, by the end more worried about how many fingers they’d get to hold up to memorialize the destruction in the post-match Instagram photos. (It was four.)
Barcelona followed up that performance with yesterday’s Champions League home stand against Roma, probably Italy’s best team. In the reverse fixture, the Romans squeaked out a draw thanks to the greatest goal Alessandro Florenzi will ever score in his life. Needing only a point to wrap up the top spot in their group and coming off the emotional high of the weekend, you might’ve expected Barça to coast a little bit. Instead, they annihilated Roma 6-1, a scoreline that actually undersells how utterly rampant the Catalan side was.
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Roma came out confused and terrified. They tried a bizarre defensive strategy of aggressive cautiousness that was as bad in execution as it sounds in theory. The aggressive part was how high Roma’s back line played, with the defenders often setting up only a dozen or so yards behind their forwards; the cautious aspect was how far the midfield and forward lines sat back, granting Barcelona’s players as much time and space on the ball as they needed. Roma’s setup was so nutty it almost made Real Madrid’s Clásico formation appear sensible in contrast.
Predictably, this led to all kinds of through balls over the top. Had the lineman not erroneously raised his flag a couple times preventing some 1-v-1s with the keeper, Barça could’ve easily raced out to a 6-0 scoreline by halftime. It almost felt like Roma wanted to go a few goals down so that they didn’t have to deal with the stress of playing Barça straight up. All the goals were pretty, but Lionel Messi’s little chip finishing off a ridiculous passing sequence was the one:
This team is a jovial band of bloodthirsty assassins. From minute 1 to minute 90, they sprinted after every loose ball, smothered every new Roma possession, and ran every available channel in an effort to score or assist the next goal, driven as much by the sheer fun of running around and scoring goals as the desire to demonstrate their superiority beyond all doubt. Right now Barcelona are hungry, deadly, and selfless (evidenced by Messi and Luis Suárez, each one goal from a hat trick, letting Neymar take a penalty that he’d ultimately miss), and there’s nobody out there who looks like they can stop them.
Well, almost nobody. Barça’s only rivals for the title of best team on the planet right now, Bayern Munich, also have put together an obscene season so far. This weekend saw them face Schalke, one of Germany’s better teams. The Bavarians didn’t quite put together as comprehensive a performance as they are capable of, and were stifled a bit by the bus parked in front of their goal. Which is to say they won 3-1 without ever being seriously threatened. The win extended their lead atop the table to eight points after only 13 games. If the point difference itself doesn’t make clear the inevitability of their impending Bundesliga title, their +35 goal difference which nearly doubles second place Borussia Dortmund’s should be enough.
And while their Champions League follow-up yesterday wasn’t against competition as stiff as Barcelona’s, Bayern also made quick work of their opponents, reigning Greek champs Olympiakos. Using the five forward all-out attack formation they sometimes feature against teams they know they’ll dominate, it only took Bayern 20 minutes to beat the Olympiakos keeper three times and put the match to bed. Even after losing a man in the 52nd minute, Bayern controlled the game the entire time and scored one of the numerous chances they created with 10 men before the day was done.
Under the now fully integrated Pep Guardiola system, Bayern are terrifyingly talented and complete. Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski are both well on their way to their best seasons ever, each basically getting a goal per game (Müller has scored 19 in 20, Lewy 20 in 20). The relatively unheralded Douglas Costa has been perhaps the best summer transfer window addition anywhere in the world, coming from Shakhtar Donetsk and dribbling past everyone whenever he wants, then spanking in crosses and cutbacks and through balls to rack up more assists than anyone else in Germany. They even have the 19-year-old Kingsley Coman, making everyone ask “Ribéry who?” as he flies down the wing beating defenders left and right. And none of that even touches on the fact that there are multiple players on their bench (Mario Götze, Medhi Benatia, Thiago, Juan Bernat, Ribéry, etc.) that would start for even the biggest clubs in the world, such is their outrageous depth at every position.
Barça and Bayern have been the two preeminent forces in European soccer for this past half decade or so. What first felt like a passing of the torch when the Bavarians ran over the Catalans in the Champions League semifinal three seasons ago has since become a long-distance duel for supremacy as each club has grown, adapted, and even improved over the years. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to get a true rematch in the sport’s biggest tournament; while it took Barça a couple seasons to tweak their playing style and rebuild the squad so that they could reclaim their position as the world’s model club, by the time they were ready to challenge Bayern head on, the German side suffered debilitating injuries that hobbled them while they should have been trying to establish a mini-dynasty. (Those injuries were what precluded last year’s semifinal matches from being the contest between equals it should have been.)
Hopefully, this season will be different. If both clubs can maintain form and avoid any (more) serious injuries, they should continue on this track as co-favorites for the European Cup. That would be bad news for the other clubs vying for the title, since at these two’s best, no one is touching them. But for the sport itself, it would be exactly what we deserve.