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Apr, 25, 2013

Bayern, Dortmund herald power shift

Although the expectation of seeing Lionel Messi line up against Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League final, of watching Barcelona and Real Madrid fight for supremacy in the ultimate "Clasico," has been all but washed away, Barcelona's Andres Iniesta said Thursday it is too early to speak of the end of an era.

"On this team in the last five years we have won two Champions League titles and advanced to three semifinals, we are on the verge of a fourth La Liga title in five years and adding that to the Supercopa and everything else, it has been a blessed era," Iniesta told reporters in Spain on Thursday. "If you analyze those five years against one match against Munich, that is good for nothing. To me, the end of an era means that years pass and you don't win any titles."

Yet in Spain, the talk continues. Instead of seeing Spain's two biggest teams play for the biggest trophy in club soccer, it's much more likely that German clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will meet for the title on May 25 at Wembley Stadium.

With Messi still nursing a hamstring injury, Barcelona was completely outplayed by Bayern on Tuesday in Munich, losing 4-0. About 24 hours later, Real Madrid was humbled 4-1 by Dortmund, with Ronaldo scoring his team's lone goal as Robert Lewandowski put in all four for his.

That's German clubs 8, Spanish teams 1. And in terms of European football over the past few years, that's a big deal.

"It's the evolution of football," said Iniesta, who teams with Messi and Xavi Hernandez to make up arguably the most feared midfield in football. "We have to improve so we can keep fighting for titles in every competition."

Barcelona and Madrid can still reach the final, but don't count on it. The second legs of the semifinals will be played next week in Spain. Barcelona needs to win by five goals to advance or at least match the 4-0 result to force extra time. Madrid has the easier route, needing a 3-0 win to advance on away goals.

At this stage of the tournament, however, that has never been done. So the likelihood is that Bundesliga champion Bayern will be playing for its fifth European Cup against Dortmund, the team that won the past two league titles in Germany.

"There is no antidote for this brilliant Bundesliga that is amazing the football world," wrote Jose Samano, the chief soccer writer for Spanish daily El Pais. "Barcelona, the greatest of all teams of recent years, didn't have the answer on Tuesday, nor did Madrid last night, a giant that appeared to have arrived in peak form heading toward its 10th European Cup with an extraordinary galaxy of players and a coach with a better reputation than any other. Both were rolled over."

Real Madrid is the most successful team in European Cup history with nine titles but hasn't reached the final since winning in 2002. Barcelona has won four, including three since 2006.

Neither made the final last year, with Barcelona losing to Chelsea in the semifinals and Madrid falling to Bayern. Chelsea then beat Bayern in the final.

If there is a first all-German final this year, it would be further proof that the Bundesliga might be the healthiest league in Europe.

Bayern has been peaking over the past few seasons and would be in its third final in four seasons, the last being that painful loss to Chelsea on penalties while playing at home. The Munich club has invested smartly since then, adding size and muscle in signing defender Dante and midfielder Javi Martinez, and adding striker Mario Mandzukic.

Dortmund is more of a surprise. The club won the Champions League in 1997, barely escaped bankruptcy in 2005 and could not pass the group stage last time.

This season, it is the only undefeated team in the Champions League and beat another Spanish club, Malaga, in the quarterfinals -- although the winning goal came from an offside position.

So with German clubs on the rise and Spanish clubs appearing to stagnate, the talk is about a shift in power.

"This is not the end of an era," Barcelona vice president Josep Bartomeu told Catalunya Radio on Thursday. "There is a structure to the club and it will continue. We will go forward with the same base that we have now.

"New players will arrive. There are certain positions that we need to reinforce. That is the way of things, the team needs it."

But age could be only one factor in the perceived change. The Bundesliga has 18 clubs, two fewer than other top leagues, which means fewer games. And unlike most others, it takes a long winter break, giving players a chance to recover. Also, German Cup matches are one-leg affairs, also meaning fewer games.

Internationally, Germans have been looking up to Spain for years: Germany lost the 2008 European Championship final to Spain and fell again to the Spaniards in the 2010 World Cup semifinals.

Now the Germans may have moved past their role models.

"Amazing. In two days, the two brightest students of the class have been brushed aside in Germany," columnist Alfredo Relano wrote in Spanish sports daily AS.

Perhaps the most striking example of German clubs taking over from Spain is that Pep Guardiola -- a former Barcelona star player and hugely successful coach -- will take over at Bayern next season. Barcelona won 14 out of 19 possible titles in his four-year tenure in Spain.

But despite this week's score line, Guardiola's old team isn't going to give up so easily.

"When things don't go your way you have to count to 10, wait until everyone calms down a little, and take the time to think and use reason," Iniesta said. "If we want to keep competing like we have been and fight for titles, we need to improve many things for the simple reason that to keep on winning you always have to get better."

Next week Barcelona will need to be a lot better if they want to advance. Madrid, too.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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