FC Barcelona are in desperate need of a miracle, as they attempt to pull off one of, if not the greatest comeback in European Cup history tomorrow evening at the Camp Nou. The Blaugrana have to turnaround a 4-0 deficit if they are to progress to the final of the 2012-2013 UEFA Champions League at the expense of Bayern Munich – something that has never before been achieved at this late stage of the competition, or indeed at any stage of the knock-out round. However, given Barcelona’s recent results against German opposition at the Camp Nou, and given Barcelona’s 4-0 victory over AC Milan in the Round of 16, there is a certain "feeling" amongst Culés that this tie – despite the daunting task ahead – is not yet over.
For the most part, Barcelona have exactly the same squad at their disposal as they did one week ago on that disappointing night in Germany, albeit with a couple more notable absentees. Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol continue to miss out through injury – and they will be joined on the sidelines by Sergio Busquets, who has failed to recover from his niggling groin injury in time to make the squad for tomorrow’s match. Jordi Alba is suspended after his admittedly humorous act of petulance in the first-leg earned the Catalan his third yellow card of the campaign, while Eric Abidal also sits out with a calf injury.
Thankfully though, Barcelona’s injury crisis hasn’t hit Victor Valdés just yet – meaning that Barça’s number one will be able to take his place in goal tomorrow, possibly starting his last-ever UEFA Champions League match for FC Barcelona. Over the years, Valdés has treated Barça fans to a number of spectacular performances, including a memorable display in the 2006 Champions League final, where he almost single-handedly kept his future colleague, Thierry Henry at bay – but he has also made a number of high-profile blunders, which may, or may not have, cost the Blaugrana a title or two. Could we include last week’s opening goal in the latter category? Perhaps not as obvious an error as his moment of madness against Angel di Maria, there are many who feel as though Valdés could, and should have done better with Thomas Müller’s near-post header.
The same applies for the rest of the Barcelona defense; they probably could and should have done more in last week’s 4-0 defeat. The marking for instance was nothing short of diabolical, and the entire defense seemed scared of putting a foot in, winning just eight tackles over the course of the 90 minutes – that’s the same amount as Bastian Schweinsteiger managed on his own. Of the starting backline, only Dani Alves made more than two tackles – and as a result, Franck Ribery had a relatively quiet evening compared to his offensive colleagues. Coincidence?
With that in mind, expect Tito Vilanova to start Dani Alves at right-back, with Adriano Correia filling in at left-back for the suspended Jordi Alba. Despite rumours that Barça might start with a three-man defense, I’m predicting that the absence of Sergio Busquets will prompt Tito to err on the side of caution and stick with the usual 4-3-3. Gerard Piqué is almost guaranteed a start, with Marc Bartra the only real option for the remaining centre-half berth – unless Tito decides to move Adriano back into the centre of defense, with Martin Montoya covering at left-back. Personally, I would opt for the former – but with the tie on the line, anything is possible.
With Busquets injured, Alex Song should start at pivote in what will arguably be his first "real" test since his summer move to Catalunya. Obviously, Alex Song is not Sergio Busquets, and in many ways, that will affect the Blaugrana ahead of this crunch fixture – but equally, that means that Song will bring a different dimension to the starting XI. Maybe he won’t be as assured in possession, and as comfortable playing the ball to his teammates, but Song can be more direct – a trait that could be vital tomorrow evening. Aside from that enforced change, expect Tito to field the usual suspects, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta. In an ideal world, we could maybe find the room to start Cesc Fàbregas and/or Thiago Alcântara, but Barça simply cannot afford to give up their defensive or offensive numbers. If anything, the only position we could theoretically do without is pivote; but it would be a bold decision – and probably inappropriate for tomorrow’s match.
And finally, we have the attack – arguably the most important aspect in any comeback. Just who will Barcelona count on to get them the four (or more likely five) goals required to progress to the final? Lionel Messi is going to start – more on him later – but who will join him? David Villa would be a good choice, he is arguably the most prolific player not named Messi in our squad after all. But is he the right choice to face Bayern Munich? Again, in an ideal world we would field Villa, but there’s an opportunity cost involved. With Villa in the starting XI, Barça lose either Pedro or Alexis Sánchez, both of whom are valuable at each end of the field. Pedro scores important goals – it’s what he does – and Sánchez is one of our few "in-form" players...
Anyway, back to Messi. As per usual, when Barça need a result, the world looks to one man: Lionel Messi. And truth be told, he usually delivers. There’s always that one match, usually in the UEFA Champions League knock-out stages, where Messi really takes over – elevating himself and indeed FC Barcelona as a whole, to an entirely different level. We’re talking the five-goal haul against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012, the brace against Real Madrid in 2011, the quadruple against Arsenal in 2010 – and perhaps to a lesser extent, we could include his inspirational performance against Bayern in 2009, or maybe the semi-final in the same year against Chelsea where Messi displayed maturity beyond his years to set up Iniesta’s beautiful last-minute goal. Maybe we’ve already had our "Messi moment" for 2013? Without his brace against AC Milan, the Blaugrana would have almost certainly crashed out at the Round of 16 – or was that merely an appetiser to what might follow tomorrow evening? No pressure Leo, but our hopes rest on your shoulders!
Jupp Heynckes made ten changes to the side that defeated Barcelona 4-0 as Bayern Munich took on Freiburg on Saturday, and despite full-scale changes, Bayern still won. Expect Heynckes to field a similar XI to the one that started a week ago, albeit with one or two exceptions. I’d expect Mario Mandzukic to replace Mario Gomez in attack, and it’s possible that Heynckes may choose to "rest" a couple of players who are just one yellow card away from missing the final.
Barcelona: Gerard Piqué, Alex Song
Bayern Munich: WWWWWW
Bayern Munich 0-4 FC Barcelona – 23rd April 2013 – UEFA Champions League
Barcelona slumped to a heavy 4-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena, as goals from Thomas Müller (2), Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez secured an emphatic win for the hosts.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Adriano; Song, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Sánchez
Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Lahm, Dante, Boateng, Alaba; Schweinsteiger, Martinez; Robben, Müller, Ribery; Mandzukic
5-0 Barça :P