It was nothing if not predictable; today’s UEFA Champions League semi-final draw turned out to be both enthralling and entirely pointless in equal measure, providing the football world with the tie they have been aching to see: FC Barcelona vs Bayern Munich, albeit in somewhat anti-climactic fashion. For all the paranoia and conspiracy theories, it was pot luck quite simply that landed Real Madrid the "easy" draw of Serie A champions, Juventus FC – yet, thanks to all our pre-draw posturing and the same old tired jokes, we knew this was coming.
Although perhaps that shouldn’t blunt the spectacle that awaits us in the first two weeks of May, as irrespective of whether we thought we’d be paired with Bayern, the football on display at both the Camp Nou and the Allianz Arena promises to be of the very highest quality.
Before Real Madrid completed La Decima last season, both FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich represented football’s gold standard. Their intricate, intelligent tactical systems were without parallel. Often imitated, but rarely equalled – Bayern and Barcelona sat alone at the very highest echelon of the sport, peering down at the heathens and their aesthetically inferior styles with contempt.
This self-aggrandising culture prompted a wave of complacency to sweep across both clubs, perhaps predictably and understandably so.
Over the course of three glorious seasons, FC Barcelona revolutionised the footballing world with the implementation of an up-tempo, possession-orientated style of play that was complemented by a high defensive line and tireless work ethic.
The immediate reward for their bravery and innovations was a historic treble, the first ever achieved in Spanish football. Two more La Liga titles followed; as did a second European title and all the while, Barcelona’s core group of Catalan superstars and their mesmeric talent were leading the Spanish National Team to unprecedented international glory. A proud footballing nation was able to celebrate its first World title, before promptly retaining their European crown two years later.
The world was high on the Barça style; and the majority of the credit went to Barcelona’s fearless leader, Josep "Pep" Guardiola.
A relative managerial novice upon his appointment in the summer of 2008, Guardiola stayed true to his Cruyffista teachings throughout his reign, rarely tinkering with the system or pushing the boundaries, even with his Barcelona side firmly on the slippery slope of decline. For the Blaugrana, it was a case of what comes up, must come down. For Guardiola on the other hand, it seemed as though his prior achievements were enough to outweigh his later shortcomings.
The end result? Guardiola’s star remained intact throughout a lacklustre, disappointing 2011/12 campaign. Who cared if the Blaugrana lost the La Liga title to Real Madrid and succumbed to an ignominious defeat at home in the UEFA Champions League to Chelsea FC? Pep still left Catalunya a hero, breaking Culé hearts with the revelation that he was planning to take a yearlong sabbatical in New York City.
As the weeks and months passed by, Guardiola’s reputation was only enhanced by Barcelona’s failings. With Tito Vilanova cruelly sidelined through illness, the once mighty Barcelona could barely stumble to the finishing line in 2012/13, their La Liga triumph overshadowed by a humiliating, humbling 0-7 aggregate thrashing at the hands of Jupp Heynckes Bavarian monstrosity, the heir apparents to Barcelona’s throne, Bayern Munich.
The perfect combination of discipline, athleticism and technical ability; Bayern laid waste to their Catalan rivals, dismantling every single cog in the famous tiki-taka machine with an onslaught of brutal German efficiency.
On this occasion, there was to be no respite; goal after goal after goal, Bayern were incessant in their quest for more. They weren’t content with just beating Barcelona; they wanted to dominate them. Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller; the Bayern attack ran riot while the Barcelona orchestra looked distinctly out of tune sans its magisterial, shaven-headed conductor.
It was arguably then more than ever that Guardiola: the man, the myth, the legend, was born. Yearning for the success of years gone by, Barça fans began to romanticise the Guardiola era; Pep wasn’t just a manager and he was més que un soci; he was a saint, infallible in every sense. No matter who followed in his path, no matter their achievements and no matter how the club performed, but no one and nothing could live up to Guardiola.
With that a new breed of Culé was born; individuals with an innate sense of negativity, always critical of their own club, belittling any and all successes purely because they were perceived to fall short of a bygone era. Barcelona were no longer deserving of their full support it would seem, not now that Pep was gone. The same individuals were and still are predisposed to follow the very side that knocked us off our perch: Bayern Munich, where they curiously hold FC Hollywood to somewhat lower standards.
That year in New York added to the Guardiola mystique; a litany of top clubs were clamouring for his signature and the media frenzy accompanying his decision was unparalleled, at least in this sport. When he announced that Munich was to be his next destination, the expectations started to build and reached a crescendo after Jupp Heynckes completed the treble.
His arrival was supposed to herald the start of a dynasty; unrivalled domestic and continental success was the goal, nay, it was being demanded and just as his Barcelona side did in 2011/12, Pep fell short. Bundesliga success would prove to be no consolation when Bayern crashed out of the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid; a Manita aggregate scoreline emphasising the gulf in class between Bayern and Los Blancos.
Away from home in unfamiliar territory, without the unconditional support of the board and fans behind him; Guardiola was under-pressure for the first time in his managerial career and to date, the results have been mixed. Emphatic beat-downs of Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Porto demonstrate the underlying talent in this Bayern outfit, but only serve to mask the frailties that the same opponents exposed in prior matches.
Plagued by the weight of expectation as Bayern demand another European crown, Guardiola must formulate a gameplan to contend with the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, players that helped him forge his legend – the very same individuals without whom he has been unable to scale the heights of yesteryear.
And so, Pep Guardiola will return to the Camp Nou seeking to obtain the success that has eluded him since his departure, while Lionel Messi and Barcelona attempt to demonstrate that they are capable of reclaiming their place as European champions, even without Pep at the helm. For both parties, it’s make or break time: the sword of Damocles will be hovering above the Allianz Arena on May 12th, waiting to claim a heavyweight victim.
From ashes to ashes, dust to dust; FC Barcelona created Pep Guardiola and now they have an opportunity to break him – maybe once and for all.