FC Barcelona take on Bayern Munich tomorrow at the Allianz Arena in the first-leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final clash with the newly-crowned Bundesliga champions. Having wrapped up their domestic league with over a month to spare, Bayern Munich are able to turn their full attention to the Champions League, looking to right the wrongs of both last season and 2010, where the Bavarians lost in the final to Chelsea and Inter Milan respectively. However, the fact remains that Bayern haven’t won the UEFA Champions League since 2001, their only such triumph since they won three straight European Cups between 1974 and 1976. Barcelona on the other hand have emerged victorious in three of the past seven seasons, and twice in the past four seasons; Bayern Munich may well be the "form" side, but even they cannot boast the pedigree and experience that this Barcelona side can.
And ultimately, Bayern (like every other team in World Football) are beatable. Their record is phenomenal, but it does have blemishes, especially at the Allianz Arena. After all, Heynckes’ side were defeated by Napoli in pre-season, by Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga and by Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League – and that’s without mentioning their notable 3-1 away defeat to Belarusian minnows BATE Borisov in the group stage. Is that vindictive of Bayern’s form over the course of the season? Absolutely not, but are any of those sides as dangerous as FC Barcelona?
The point is, while Bayern might be strong, they have never encountered anything quite like Barcelona – and aside from one forgettable night in 2009, they haven’t had the pleasure of facing up against Lionel Messi. After all, Barcelona headed into their 2011 UEFA Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid as slight underdogs – and a Lionel Messi brace virtually sealed the tie in the first-leg at the Santiago Bernabeu. Against AC Milan in the Round of 16, Barcelona were believed to be heading out after a 2-0 defeat in the first-leg at the San Siro – and a Lionel Messi brace sealed a superb turnaround. There are plenty of other examples too; the 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid back in December, the El Clasico draw at the Camp Nou in October...with Messi back in the squad and seemingly ready to start, forget about whether Barça will be able to deal with Bayern, just how will Bayern contend with the threat that Messi and Barcelona pose?
Therein lies the key to this tie; there’s so much focus whether Barcelona can fend off the Bayern threat, and just how they will do it without Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano – but really, the pressure is on Bayern Munich. They are the ones that effectively signed Pep Guardiola from Barcelona, they are the ones with the supposedly air-tight defense, and they are the ones with the critically-acclaimed attack. Bayern Munich are regarded as the future of European football – Barça, for all their talent and recent success, are apparently on the decline. A once unstoppable juggernaut; the Blaugrana are now seen as a one-man team, crippled by Messi-dependencia and a fragile backline. Sure, they are streets ahead at the top of La Liga, but that’s only because Real Madrid are focusing their efforts on La Decima – or at least that’s how the story goes. "Just wait until they face one of Europe’s true heavyweights", they say. "Bayern Munich would run riot against this defense".
And maybe they will. Barcelona will start with Victor Valdés in goal tomorrow, and have their two first-choice full-backs, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, available for selection – but they will be without their captain, Carles Puyol and arguably their best centre-half in Javier Mascherano. Even makeshift centre-half Adriano Correia is sidelined. Gerard Piqué is ready to start in the heart of defense, but he will be joined by either Marc Bartra or Eric Abidal. That’s the same Marc Bartra who has played just 343 minutes of UEFA Champions League football in his entire career, and that’s the same Eric Abidal who has been sidelined for over a year after a liver transplant. That defense – which has conceded the same number of UCL goals this season as Bayern, in a fact that’s conveniently left out of many reports – is a glaring weakness, and sure to concede against the free-scoring Bavarian attack, right? Well, Bayern will be without top-scorer Mario Mandzukic, and of their remaining attackers, I’d argue that some are guilty of over-estimating the Bayern threat.
Mario Gomez is an exceptional striker who has proved himself countless times over the past few seasons, but can he deliver when it matters most? In his career, Gomez has scored just six times in fifteen matches against Borussia Dortmund, and who can forget his wasteful performance against Chelsea in last season’s final? Gomez was similarly ineffective in Germany’s Euro 2012 semi-final loss against Italy, and he was left on the bench in the 2010 UEFA Champions League final. A great striker, plagued by inconsistency in the important matches. Franck Ribery is another outstanding player, but has just one goal and two assists to his name in this season’s Champions League, while Arjen Robben has just one goal and an assist in this season’s competition – hardly inspiring form for either player. Bayern might be a better team than Real Madrid, but their offense appears to be considerably weaker.
Then we move onto the midfield: a Barça midfield that is likely to be at full-strength, peak condition; 100%.
Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta; arguably the greatest midfield trio there has ever been – and Bayern have to contend with that triumvirate without one of their star midfielders, Toni Kroos. Without a shadow of a doubt, Barcelona will dominate possession tomorrow night – in fact, has Sergio Busquets ever played in a match without his side winning the battle for possession? – it’s merely a question of whether they can make that possession count, and whether Bayern can capitalise on the rare occasions that they do receive the ball for a sustained period of time.
Of course, Barcelona’s success will ultimately depend on their attack, and fortunately for the Blaugrana, the definition of success is quite different from Bayern’s. After all, for Bayern, tomorrow will not be definitive, regardless of the score. As we saw in the Round of 16, Barça can never be completely counted out of a tie when the second-leg is at the Camp Nou, but they can in all likelihood seal their place in the final tomorrow – provided they win away from home, just as they did at the Bernabeu in 2011. Even then, do the Blaugrana even need to win? One might argue that "all" Barcelona need is an away goal (or two) and the tie could swing in their favour. Just who would bet against them achieving that with Lionel Messi ready to return and lead the attack?
Alexis Sánchez and Pedro Rodriguez are likely to provide the support, as Luis mentioned in his tactical preview, both Pedro and Alexis are high-energy players, willing to work at both ends of the field – crucial attributes for a Barça team squaring up against two of the most fearsome wide combinations in all of football. Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben; David Alaba and Franck Ribery – while it’s important that Barcelona don’t concede the wings entirely, they must also be careful, respectful even, of the threat that Bayern pose. Just as Alves and Alba must be ready to attack, and push both Ribery and Robben (if he starts) back into their own defensive third, the Barça wingers have to be ready to help out defensively – not to mention press from the front. David Villa is a world-class striker, but he’s not the guy you want in that situation, especially after his leg break in the Club World Cup.
There are a couple of decisions for Tito to make – Abidal or Bartra? Villa or Sánchez, or even Tello? – but all in all, the starting XI picks itself, giving Vilanova the freedom to focus entirely on his gameplan. Can Tito mastermind the Blaugrana to a memorable victory at the Allianz Arena?
Manuel Neuer will start in goal, and is susceptible to the odd error – including this mistake against Hannover – but Neuer is also widely regarded as one of, if not the best keeper in football at this moment in time. Philipp Lahm is also regarded as one of the best in his position, and David Alaba has blossomed since he made the transition to defense (not too dissimilar to Alba actually). Dante was an inspired signing from Borussia Mönchengladbach, and the Brazilian is likely to be partnered by Daniel Van Buyten, although former Manchester City defender Jerome Boateng could equally start, it depends on Heynckes personal preference.
Bastian Schweinsteiger will start in midfield, although there is some debate as to who will join him. Javi Martinez is favourite (and could even fill in at centre-back, as we all know), and Luiz Gustavo could be considered for a place, possibly with both Martinez and Schweinsteiger. A trivote? Well, Bayern would likely describe it as a "4-2-1-2-1", but for all intents and purposes, it would be a trivote. That would probably mean a place on the bench for Arjen Robben as Thomas Müller would start on the right, with Ribery in his usual place on the left-hand side of midfield, while Mario Gomez should start ahead of Claudio Pizarro as the lone striker.
Barcelona (3): Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Alex Song
Bayern Munich (3): Dante, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm
FC Bayern Munich 1-1 FC Barcelona – 14th April 2009 – UEFA Champions League
Barcelona progressed to the semi-finals after a 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena secured a 5-1 aggregate win for the Blaugrana. Franck Ribery put the hosts ahead minutes after the restart, but Seydou Keita’s equaliser ensured that the Blaugrana would remain undefeated in the knock-out rounds.
Kassai was in charge for the 2011 UEFA Champions League final, not to mention Barcelona’s 4-0 win over AC Milan back in March. The Hungarian also took charge of Spain’s 1-0 FIFA World Cup semi-final victory over Germany.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Sánchez
Bayern (4-3-2-1): Neuer; Lahm, Dante, Van Buyten, Alaba; Martinez, Schweinsteiger, Gustavo; Muller, Ribery; Gomez
I predict a tense, and utterly enthralling 90 minutes of football.