There was something dispiriting about the last half hour of Barcelona’s 0-3 Champions League semi-final second leg defeat to Bayern Munich on Wednesday.
The mood inside the Camp Nou was dismal as an exhausted and listless Barca side stumbled towards a club record 7-0 two leg European defeat.
Once Arjen Robben’s opening goal went in coach Tito Vilanova withdrew key playmaker Xavi Hernandez. Fellow Spanish international midfielder Andres Iniesta was substituted soon afterwards, adding to the feeling that Barca had just given up.
The post-game press conference found reporters wondering how a side, whose smaller but technically better players that dominated world football in recent years, had been tossed aside by the physically dominant Bayern.
While Lionel Messi’s injury and Barca’s questionable transfer policy were rightly raised as issues, Vilanova hit on one reason why Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas et al had been below their best.
“These players have played over 300 games in the past five years,” he said. “We have never distributed the load more than this season. Through to December it was very good, but now it is more complicated.”
Some argued it was the Catalan coach’s job to ensure his side was fresh for the biggest games, but the previous night’s semi-final had also fed the idea that Spain’s players are now running on empty.
There was at least drama at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu, when Borussia Dortmund just about held on for 4-3 aggregate win after late Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos goals.
But Madrid’s Spanish contingent [the phenomenally energetic Ramos aside] played little role in the comeback. Alvaro Arbeloa was missing with a back injury; Iker Casillas has been benched. Xabi Alonso, a vital cog in Jose Mourinho’s Madrid machine, was substituted on 66 minutes, having been outshone completely by Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan.
The eclipse of Xavi, Xabi and company should not be a huge surprise. This was Barcelona’s sixth successive Champions League semi-final, and Madrid’s third in a row. Meanwhile, the same players have backboned Spain’s two European Championships and World Cup wins. There have also been a Confederations Cup and summer club tours to fit-in. Such exertions have taken huge physical and emotional tolls.
Xavi, now 33, has played exactly 300 competitive games since summer 2008, not counting friendlies for Spain. Over the last two seasons he has played through persistent calf and thigh muscle injuries, and needed injections for two key recent games — Barca’s Champions League last 16 return against AC Milan, and Spain’s World Cup 2014 qualifier in Paris. Alonso (31, and 284 competitive games in five seasons) has also been forcing himself to play through a groin problem in recent months.
Neither can relax yet. Barca still need to wrap up the La Liga title, while Madrid play the Copa del Rey final against city rivals Atletico on May 17. Once the domestic season ends on June 2, Spain fly to the US for friendly fixtures against Haiti and then Ireland (in New York on June 11), before swinging south to Brazil for the Confederations Cup between June 16 and 30.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque now has a choice to make. He could choose a ‘development’ squad for these games, leaving his senior players behind. Spain are not short of strength in depth, and a team containing the rested Casillas, Cesar Azpilicueta, Nacho Monreal, Javi Martinez, Asier Illarramendi, Mikel Arteta, Jesus Navas, Fernando Llorente, Roberto Soldado and Michu would let nobody down.
Xavi and Xabi (and Iniesta, Ramos, Arbeloa, Pique, Fabregas and Busquets) need a decent summer’s rest. Barcelona and Madrid’s chances in Europe next season depend largely on them putting their feet up for a few months. As do Spain’s hopes when they return to Brazil next summer to defend their World Cup crown.
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