Sané seals Bayern Munich’s win against Barça on bad night for Lewandowski


Perhaps the nicest thing you could say about Barcelona here was that of all their recent humiliations against Bayern Munich, this was by some distance the least humiliating. They moved the ball with verve and purpose, enjoyed some excellent chances, looked at times like the old Barcelona with that vague whiff of sophisticated arrogance. Gavi and Pedri were two of the best players on the pitch.

But winning the argument is a poor substitute for winning games of football. Xavi had it right afterwards when he said that his side had to “learn to compete as Bayern do”. The difference here was not one of talent or of ambition, but of maturity. Bayern soaked up the pressure in the first half and took their chances in the second. Once Lucas Hernandez and Leroy Sané had put them clear, they simply slipped into the comfortable old grooves: relentless passing football, players fighting and covering for each other.

Bayern may not quite have set the Bundesliga alight so far this season, drawing three of their first six games. But something about this competition and this opposition seems to bring out the mongrel in them.

Their teenage playmaker Jamal Musiala was a horrific delight: all quick feet and smart movement and killer instinct. At the other end, Manuel Neuer kept them in the game through sheer presence. The introduction of Leon Goretzka for the watery Marcel Sabitzer at half-time shifted the midfield battle decisively in Bayern’s favour.

Meanwhile, the biggest threat on the pitch endured a frustrating night. Perhaps there is no defence in the world better equipped to stop Robert Lewandowski than a defence that has spent thousands of training sessions trying to do so, that for the last few years has enjoyed a front-row seat to his genius.

And yet still Lewandowski had the chances to win this game: at least three in the first half, as well as the deft through ball from which Pedri hit the post. Certainly Lewandowski will score enough goals this season to make Barcelona competitive. But it is their defence that will determine their readiness to challenge for the biggest prizes.

And here Barcelona remain very much a work in progress. Perhaps the frustration of churning out routine wins against the likes of Cadiz and Viktoria Plzen is that they so rarely come up against teams who can genuinely hurt them.

Jules Koundé at right-back did well against Sadio Mané, but on the other side of the pitch Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso looked half a yard off the pace. It was Alonso who lost Hernandez for Bayern’s decisive first goal, and with Alejandro Balde waiting in the wings the left-back position remains a matter of fevered debate.

But there was also so much promise here, particularly in a first half when Barcelona pressed and scrapped like a team with a grudge.

The surface was greasy, the tackles were venomous and the early stages resembled not so much a game of football as a rugby league title decider: bodies flying everywhere, wave after wave of attack, long, raking diagonal kicks, desperation written into every deed.

Bayern’s bloodthirsty press we know about; Barcelona’s, by contrast, has developed immensely in the last few months, a testament to Xavi’s coaching and increased levels of fitness.

Lewandowski himself had entered the arena to a cocktail of boos and applause from the Bayern fans, which felt somehow fitting. They respect him too much to hate him; they never liked him enough to exalt him; they fear him too much to ever be truly at ease with the idea of him turning out for someone else.

Alongside him Ousmane Dembélé started brightly, and might even have had a penalty when Alphonso Davies chopped him down in the first half.

But with Gavi and Pedri running the midfield, Julian Nagelsmann turned to Goretzka at half-time, who forced a good save from Marc-André ter Stegen with a long-range effort. And from the resulting corner, Bayern made the breakthrough to a rapturous, relieved roar.

Hernandez tapped Alonso on the left shoulder, darted past his right and headed in Joshua Kimmich’s in-swinging cross. Four minutes later, Musiala ran at the Barcelona defence and slipped in Sané, who rolled in a clever finish.

In a way, it was Bayern at their clinical, cynical best: a team that gently probes at your weaknesses, examines the lie of the land, and then simply finds a way. There was still the odd opening for Barcelona: Pedri hit the post after a delightful one-two with Lewandowski.

But the intensity of the opening stanza had evaporated, and perhaps this was ultimately to be expected. This is, after all, still a developing team, largely thrown together in the summer, full of talent and promise, but as yet nothing more than that.