PARIS (AP) — There is such a thing as being too clever for your own good.
Pep Guardiola is undoubtedly smart, but his reluctance to water down his tactical thinking is one reason why his Bayern Munich team won’t win the Champions League this year. That and because he looks out of his depth at the pinnacle in Europe without the unstoppable, match-winning force that is Lionel Messi.
Bayern playing three-on-three for 15 opening minutes against Barcelona’s attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez in the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday night was the football equivalent of climbing into a lion’s cage to impress your friends.
Either you emerge with a story for the ages — “Did I tell you about the time when …?” — or you lose limbs. Bayern lost a leg.
Even for a renowned motivator like Guardiola and with the home advantage of their Allianz Arena, it is hard to think of convincing arguments the Bayern coach can use to hoodwink his players into thinking that their 3-0 loss at the Camp Nou can be remedied in the second leg in Munich next Tuesday.
Football neutrals should send Guardiola a “thank you” note for an opening spell so breathtakingly risky that it was tempting to wake up the kids: “Don’t worry about being tired for school, you must see this.”
No other contemporary manager would have dared go toe-to-toe with a trio that by the end of the night had inflated its combined total of goals this season to an otherworldly 111. The audacity was intoxicating, oxygen after so many matches of rote football from coaches lacking Guardiola’s imagination. The boxing equivalent would have been if Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao had gone at each other hammer and tongs in their so-called Fight of the Century that wasn’t, instead of going through the motions for obscene paychecks.
There was method in Guardiola’s madness. By skimping with three at the back, piling bodies into the midfield and pushing players higher up the pitch, he wanted to out-Barcelona Barcelona, deprive Messi and Co. of the ball that he, when he was Barcelona’s trophy-winning coach from 2008-2012, drilled them to always hold onto or quickly get back.
“Monopolize the ball and make them run” was Guardiola’s succinct summary of his anti-Barcelona plan. “But we were not dominant enough.”
Pragmatism can go a long way in football. The career of Jose Mourinho, the antithesis of Guardiola’s idealism, demonstrates that. Winning the Champions League with two different teams — Porto and Inter Milan — is an achievement Guardiola is no closer to matching. His Champions League titles in 2009 and 2011 both came with Barcelona, with Messi.
Unlike Guardiola, Mourinho doesn’t think “parking the bus,” defense in numbers, winning ugly when needed, are dirty words. One would never expect, or even want, such calculating realism from a football romantic like Guardiola. But his switch after 15 frantic minutes to a more orthodox four-man defense tacitly acknowledged the folly of allowing Messi, Neymar and Suarez so much room. That no one at Bayern made Guardiola see that before kickoff begs the question of whether he has too much power and not enough critical advice.
Had Bayern started that way, putting out fewer fires and playing with more composure than panic, it perhaps could have made better use of the opening spell. Guardiola could point out that Barcelona’s goals came at the end of the match, in the 77th, 80th, and 94th minutes, not at the beginning, and that the match would have been radically altered if Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski had not scuffed wide an early chance.
Guardiola could also convincingly argue that Messi decided this match, not tactics. His second goal, bamboozling Jerome Boateng with a left-right swerve that comically floored the Bayern defender, and chipping over the world’s best goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, will be seared on the minds of Ballon d’Or voters.
They’ll have little choice but to award Messi his fifth player of the year trophy unless current holder Cristiano Ronaldo does even better to get Real Madrid past Juventus in the other semifinal return leg next Wednesday.
Still, despite those mitigating circumstances, the verdict has to be that the 2013 Champions League winners have gone backward in Europe since Guardiola took charge from Jupp Heynckes. Last season, it was eventual champion Real Madrid that chewed chunks out of Guardiola’s reputation with a 5-0 aggregate victory in the semifinals. Now Messi is begging the question: Can Guardiola only win in Europe when the Argentine genius is playing for him, not against him?
If he can’t find an answer to that next week, then perhaps Guardiola isn’t as smart as he thinks.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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