Recent reports of the death of Spanish soccer have been greatly exaggerated. As long as players of the caliber of Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Gerard Piqué continue to swell their ranks, Real Madrid and Barcelona will always be there or thereabouts in European competition.
Nevertheless their Champions League exits at the hands of German opposition this week do suggest that the ends of certain eras may well be nigh at both clubs.
After a terrible 4-1 defeat away in the first leg, on Tuesday night Real more than competed with a tamer-looking Borussia Dortmund in the Bernabéu to stride to a heroic 2-0 win that wasn't quite good enough. The fallout from a third semifinal loss in as many years has proved more than sufficient to further fire up speculation that José Mourinho's reign at the club will come to a close at season's end.
But Barcelona's 3-0 loss at home to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, adding up to a humiliating 7-0 hammering over two legs, has prompted deeper reflection about the way things are done at the club from certain areas.
I'm convinced that if we had been at 100 percent it would have been different"
"We have been beaten by a far superior team," opined defender Gerard Piqué after the encounter. "Some kind of decision will have to made next year."
The winner of three Champions League trophies in the last seven years, Barça was outclassed by a side that was simply much fitter and stronger. After racing to its best-ever start in La Liga under new coach Tito Vilanova at the beginning of the season, the Catalan team now finds itself hobbling its way to the end. Fortune has not been on its side: Vilanova's absence from the bench for several weeks while he underwent cancer treatment in New York unbalanced Barça's campaign, while a spate of injuries to key players, notably Messi - whose persisting hamstring problem prevented him from playing any part in Wednesday's game - but also Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, complicated its chances of a comeback against the Germans.
"Bayern arrived to the match at a very high physical level and we, because of the injuries and knocks that have prevented several players from training, did not," said Vilanova. "I am convinced that if we had arrived at 100 percent it would have been different. What's more the four goals [from the away leg] weighed us down a lot tonight."
His players held out for the first 45 minutes, but were condemned by Arjen Robben's strike at the start of the second half. "It arrived quickly and that weighed on us a lot because you see that you cannot come back and everything is going against you," Vilanova admitted. "We fight to the end, but we were not able to."
With his side requiring six goals to win, the Barça coach admitted he took the decision to substitute Xavi in the 55th minute as he thought ahead to sealing the Liga title against Betis this weekend. "Xavi had been carrying a knock and I thought about trying to win the league on Sunday. With another result I wouldn't have changed him."
In the 72nd minute Piqué, perhaps Barça's best player on the night, accidentally steered Franck Ribéry's cross into his own net and four minutes later Thomas Müller headed home to complete the rout.
"Now we are not the best," bemoaned Piqué. "We need to sort this out as soon as possible."
His views, however, were not echoed by club president Sandro Rosell. "I don't know what he is referring to," he said. "You have to hand out the marks at the end of term, now it is time to put them aside."
Neither did Vilanova see things so drastically: "We don't need to change much, but rather recuperate [the players] we have, who are very good. We arrived with a lot of injuries and knocks, but the squad is young and very good. You can't always win all the titles..."
And the words of encouragement even resounded from the German camp. "I am sure they will rise up again," said Bayern's Javi Martínez, the man now destined to be Spain's only representative on the Wembley turf come May 25.