FC Barcelona will be looking to take care of business tomorrow evening when they travel to the Allianz Arena to eliminate Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich and book their place in the 2015 UEFA Champions League final in Berlin. Following a dominant and emphatic 3-0 victory in the first-leg at the Camp Nou last Wednesday, the Blaugrana staked their claim to be named as the best side in the world and tomorrow should prove to be a mere formality as they move one step closer to securing the titles that will confirm their ascension back to the pinnacle of the sport.
After all, no club has ever overturned a deficit of this nature in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League since its inception back in 1992; that’s over two decades of clubs trying, and failing – sure, we all respect Bayern Munich and Pep Guardiola’s ability as a manager, but this truly is a lost cause for the Bavarians.
However, don’t let my negativity discourage you Pep; a comeback might be improbable, but nothing is impossible.
The players believe – and that might be half the battle. Mehdi Benatia, Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger and others have come out publicly to state that they will fight to the end, and that they all truly feel as though Bayern can win by the four clear goals required to overturn the deficit. We’d expect nothing less from a team of champions, yet in Catalunya at least, there’s a sense that this kind of attitude may play into FC Barcelona’s hands, so to speak.
This gung-ho, ‘let’s take on the world’ approach is all well and good when you’re playing Shakhtar Donetsk, or FC Porto. However, Bayern Munich have experienced first-hand just how foolish this mind-set can be when you are squaring off against Europe’s true elite. Last summer, Bayern welcomed Real Madrid to the Allianz Arena, knowing that a two goal victory would see them eliminate Los Blancos after a solitary goal from Karim Benzema secured a narrow victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s side at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Rumours suggested that the players were responsible for the overly-offensive tactics on the night; whatever the case and regardless of who was to blame, Bayern were humiliated. Real Madrid repeatedly scythed the hosts apart on the counter-attack, running rampant under the Bavarian floodlights to wrap up a sensational 4-0 win on the night, and a 5-0 aggregate victory over the two legs.
Pep Guardiola had experienced UEFA Champions League heartbreak before, but never quite like this. Just a season after claiming a historic treble, Bayern were handed a rude awakening, their defense and overall philosophies the punchline in a cruel joke made at their fans’ expense.
So much for Pep Guardiola creating a footballing dynasty with FC Hollywood; his side were barely treading water when it really mattered.
And yet, the spine of the team that lost so comprehensively over these two matches went on to achieve great success in the summer, as Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and of course Mario Gotze played pivotal roles in Germany’s fourth FIFA World Cup triumph in Brazil.
Evidently, something wasn’t quite adding up at Bayern Munich and Pep Guardiola was expected to find the answer. His solution was to recruit Xabi Alonso from Real Madrid and to procure the services of Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund; on paper, this new Bayern outfit looked impressive, ready to dominate not only on the domestic scene, but across the continent as well.
They navigated the group stage without much trouble at all, only faltering once the task at hand was complete and while they slipped up a couple of times against Shakhtar and Porto in the knockout stages, they always recovered – and did so in style. This was supposed to be their year; if any side was to reclaim the crown of Europe’s best, everyone assumed it was to be the side led by Pep Guardiola, and spearheaded by a group of World Cup winners.
And then along came Luis Enrique.
He might not be as fashionable, or indeed as popular as Pep Guardiola, but what he lacks in hipster charm, he more than makes up for with grit, determination and an insatiable hunger for success. It has been under his tutelage that FC Barcelona have rediscovered, re-implemented and reimagined the very principles that made them so successful under Guardiola.
The pressing. The tempo of the passing. The movement off the ball.
All three are key components of the Lucho era, and complemented by a series of faultless off-field decisions with respect to player transfers, staff recruitment and training programmes, Barcelona have slowly but surely improved up to the point where their ascendancy seems unstoppable.
Four points clear in La Liga, Barcelona only really need to win three more matches this season to claim a treble and become the first side in history to accomplish such a feat on two separate occasions.
From the existing crop of players like Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi and Neymar who have raised their game since Lucho’s arrival, to the new signings like Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and the two goalkeepers who provide balance in this ongoing evolution, via the backroom staff like Juan Carlos Unzue, who have relentlessly worked to not only address our weaknesses, but eradicate them almost entirely and turn them into major strengths.
Our success; past, present and future is owing to each and every member of this institution, at least below the boardroom level. We are so close to tasting glory once again…to making history…our belief cannot waver and we cannot falter.
90 minutes separate us from booking our place in Berlin; this is where legends are made – I have no doubt that FC Barcelona will deliver.
The precise implications of the weekend’s 2-0 victory over Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou are unknown at present. Pending the outcome of the upcoming Players’ Union strike, this could be the win that secured the La Liga title, or it might just be the one that got us to within touching distance. If the strike doesn’t go ahead, Barcelona will play their last two fixtures against Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna knowing that a single win will be enough to reclaim the title.
At the moment, that is undecided, but what we do know for sure is that the win will have some impact on tomorrow’s match, as Luis Enrique successfully rested a number of key personnel with the trip to the Allianz in mind.
Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and to a lesser extent, Marc-Andre ter Stegen were all afforded some kind of a break on the night, ready for them to likely be restored to the starting line-up in Germany. The ramifications of this rest of course remain to be seen, but it hands Barcelona a further advantage, particularly as Bayern Munich rather peculiarly started the majority of their star names in an eventual defeat to FC Augsburg, even with the Bundesliga title already wrapped up.
More on that later on in the preview, but it was bizarre to see Guardiola fielding any of his stars knowing that he faces such a deficit in the second-leg. Was it perhaps an indirect admission of the futility of this second-leg? An implied acknowledgement that his side stands no chance, irrespective of their fitness on Tuesday?
Maybe it was just another example of Luis Enrique making the right decision in contrast to his former Barça teammate…
That undoubtedly was a key theme in the first-leg after all; Pep Guardiola thought he could out-Barça Barça, only to find that his confidence was unfounded, and his suggestion naïve. From the first minute to the last, it was in fact his side that was out-matched and his decisions that were out-classed by a comparative rookie.
Luis Enrique might not have the managerial pedigree of Pep Guardiola, but in similar fashion to our former head coach, he extracts the very best out of the resources at his disposal. At Celta Vigo that just so happened to be the likes of Nolito and Charles; now that he’s been entrusted with the keys the kingdom, it turns out that he can now unleash the very best Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar that the world has ever seen.
Opting to start the fabled MSN triumvirate wasn’t exactly a difficult decision, nor is it indicative of managerial genius; but the setup of the supporting cast was magisterial – each of the other eight members of the starting line-up slotted into place perfectly. On the sidelines, Luis Enrique was the maestro, the conductor of the irrepressible Blaugrana Philharmonic.
Admittedly it took a while for Barcelona’s superiority to be reflected on the scoreboard, but with all of the players dancing to the beat of Lucho’s drum, the result was never in question.
Heck, our starting goalkeeper didn’t once have to make a save; that’s 90 minutes against one of the best strikers in the world in Robert Lewandowski, and one of the most prolific scorers in World Cup history, Thomas Muller. On the night, Marc-Andre ter Stegen completed more passes than the Polish striker, and attempted as many as Muller, demonstrating just how asphyxiating Barcelona’s pressure had been on the usually flawless Bayern midfield.
It would be premature to suggest that ter Stegen will have another quiet night tomorrow; Bayern are very much a different animal at the Allianz, although to improve upon their toothless display at the Camp Nou, the German champions will have to adapt.
Too often, they allowed Barcelona to press forward on either flank through their two full-backs: Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. The Brazilian in particular was spectacular, marauding up and down the right-flank in a performance reminiscent of those heady days under Guardiola himself. At the tender age of 32, Alves made a mockery of the suggestion that he is far past his best – and indeed ridiculed the notion that age plays such an integral part in fitness over the course of the match.
It’s a suggestion I have seen littered around the media since the match ended last Wednesday; prominent analysts, renowned for their expert reading of the game, reduced to using tired old clichés, implying that Bayern couldn’t cope with Barcelona purely because their midfield featured a couple of players past 30.
And yes, Gary Neville was accurate tonight when he made that comment: both Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger are on the wrong side of 30, but is that the real reason why Barcelona controlled proceedings last week? Of course it is not, and to even hint at as much is insulting to the Barcelona players, who played a near-perfect match to make Lahm and Schweinsteiger look so ordinary a week ago.
Anyway, I digress; the impact that Alves had down the right-flank was incredible and Bayern’s inability to not only address the problem, but even cope with it cost them the match.
The absence of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben played a major part in this without a shadow of a doubt; without two wide players on the field, Alves was liberated by the Bayern attack to venture forward at will and take risks where he deemed appropriate. If he felt like abandoning his position and leaving a gaping chasm on the right side of the Blaugrana defense, it didn’t matter because there wasn’t a single player willing to exploit the space.
So, Alves did go forward and his pressure created countless chances for the hosts, including the first goal as he dispossessed Juan Bernat, catch the Bayern defense napping and supply Lionel Messi for the finish.
By comparison, Alba didn’t have nearly as much success down the left, although that was perhaps by design. Neymar was providing the width that we didn’t naturally have on the other side without Alves, and Alba’s pace helped prevent or at least limit Bayern’s chances to counter-attack. In fact, Alba was the safe, predictable option on the night – always available in possession, rarely looking to make waves. It provides balance, and on Wednesday, it worked a treat.
The most impressive defensive work however was to be found in the heart of the backline; Gerard Pique was written off a couple of years ago, but his display in last week’s match served to solidify his reputation as perhaps the best centre-half on the planet.
As Cules, we are sure to be biased towards our own players, but even a neutral would find it difficult to argue with that assessment; Sergio Ramos has declined relative to last season, Vincent Kompany is a joke and Thiago Silva’s injury troubles have robbed him of the opportunity to prove himself for PSG against the best opposition.
Pique however is consistent, both at the defensive end where he routinely makes two or three top-class interventions per match, and at the offensive end where he seems to create a chance per game. In last week’s showdown with Bayern, Pique was the yin to Mascherano’s yang; I’ll get into the Argentine’s role in a moment, but for now let’s appreciate Pique’s composure and unwavering concentration as the last line of defense.
Javier Mascherano’s performance on the other hand was more obviously sensational. He has also been written off as a central defender, yet here he was, denying two world-class forwards at every opportunity.
Clearly, Pep Guardiola had a plan when he put both Lewandowski and Muller in attack. He wanted to give the Bayern frontline a clinical edge, but he also wanted to provide his side with a couple of reference points, an easy out in the case of Barcelona pressure. A short pass could go awry and cost his side; but a longer pass to the technically proficient target men could work well, both in terms of avoiding errors and placing the Barça backline under pressure.
On another night, it could have worked perfectly; Bayern could have dominated in the air or generally got the first touch when playing the ball forward – but every time they attempted to feed Lewandowski, or more often Muller, Mascherano was there, snapping at their heels. Maybe on one or two occasions, that gifted Bayern with a free-kick but with Guardiola at the helm, that probably wasn’t much of a concern.
In every other instance, Mascherano got to the ball first or his pressure at least forced a poor touch/pass, frustrating the Bayern forwards and regaining possession for his side. The visitors never got close to goal as a consequence, and as Rob pointed out in his excellent Tactical Review of the win, Bayern only completed three passes into the Barcelona area in the entire 90 minutes.
Pep Guardiola + three passes into the opposing penalty area. We know first-hand just how insane that seems, but hey, it happened and Barcelona’s gameplan, perfectly executed by the backline was a key factor in that.
And with things under control at the back, Barcelona could build pressure of their own from midfield, and they had the perfect building block in Sergio Busquets at pivote. There may be some who refuse to see the light, but Busquets is a once in a generation player – he’s simply that good and that important.
With him, retaining possession and recycling the ball is an art form; his style of play may seem risky as he invites pressure from the opposition and generally goads them into attempting a tackle – yet he’s always in complete control. The Bayern midfielders think they have him cornered until he shifts the ball on, usually to a teammate who now has twice the amount of space he had previously. Take a minute tomorrow to watch Busquets on the ball and really look at the impact he has; there’s a reason why Enrique has been so keen to keep him fresh…
The same can be said of the remaining two midfielders: Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta. In last week’s match, they didn’t lob the keeper, nor did they dribble round half the opposing team to supply an assist, but overall their level of performance remained just as high as it did in those respective peaks against Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
Rakitic was at his selfless best, often seen covering in defense while Alves roamed forwards, occasionally allowing himself a moment of indulgence like his early nutmeg of Bastian Schweinsteiger. Andres Iniesta on the other hand gave a passable impression of Xavi, no pun intended. All game long, Iniesta didn’t get caught in possession and against such an industrious opponent, that is no small feat at all.
Luis Suarez was probably quite far from his best in truth, but his mere presence helped shape the match and tip the scales in Barcelona’s favour. Would Lionel Messi have been afforded as much time and space as he was if Pedro replaced Sanchez in the Barça attack for example? How about Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca, as we saw a couple of years back against Chelsea?
This fear factor, coupled with his incredible hunger and work ethic has helped transform this Barcelona side; we might have been more "pure" before, but now we have a bit of bite, again, no pun intended.
Something similar can be said about Neymar; the tiki-taka idealism doesn’t exactly lend itself to a Brazilian forward yet his inclusion in the system serves to enhance it significantly. Too often I find myself shouting at the screen, or if I’m lucky enough, on the touchline, at Neymar when he attempts to pass to Lionel Messi when perhaps, a shot might have been a better option; but when he isn’t trying to play in his best buddy, Neymar is an unpredictable livewire with the ball at his feet.
Is he going to pass? Probably, but he might also be preparing to dribble past you in any manner of ways. He might be shaping for a shot towards the bottom corner; a rocket into the roof of the net, or perhaps an impudent little lob? Some might say that Neymar lives in the moment; it’s a lie – he himself has admitted that everything he does is calculated, and in his mind, represents the best option for his team and for himself.
With 35 goals and 10 assists to his name this season in just 46 matches, it’s hard to disagree with the man’s decision-making skills.
Yet in a team packed full of superstars, there is one that rises above. The pick of the bunch, the crème de la crème, the best player in the world. Barcelona have their nonpareil centre-forward: Lionel Messi. His influence is unrivalled; La Pulga is undoubtedly the foremost player in a generation stacked with talent.
The Argentine maestro plays football as if it is a work of art; each swing of his boot like the delicate caress of an artist’s brush on the canvas. Each pass chipping away at the opposition as if they are made of marble, and he is Michelangelo. Every goal is a building block; Lionel Messi is creating a legacy in world football.
There is seldom a record that Messi has not broken; but personal glory is not his main source of motivation – that has, and always will be, winning titles for the team, the collective…his family. Taken in by FC Barcelona as a child, Messi may have repaid his debt to the club tenfold and he is rightly worshipped as a God by the fans, yet watching him work his magic on the field, it’s clear that he is serving at our behest.
Like each and every one of us watching, Lionel Messi is a fan first and foremost, but he combines those attributes with the steely determination and fierce competitive streak of sports’ most transcendent athletes. Nothing, and no-one can stop him from achieving his goals – not Jerome Boateng, not Manuel Neuer; not even Pep Guardiola.
Lionel Messi is the greatest of all-time and we are blessed to call him one of our own.
Expect to see more from us on this front but Bayern Munich remains stricken by an injury crisis. The edited version is that Bayern are just as screwed as they were last week: Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, David Alaba…not even Sebastian Rode is back from injury for this one meaning that they will welcome the Blaugrana with the same side that was so comprehensively beaten last week.
There’s a chance that Mario Gotze will be restored to the line-up after his omission from the starting eleven last week arguably contributed to Bayern’s timid offensive efforts, but that’s virtually the only personnel change that Pep would dare to make tomorrow. Everything else is tactical; the three-man backline we saw in the first quarter of an hour has probably been consigned to the pits of hell by Pep himself, so we can rule that one out, unfortunately.
Instead, expect to see the more conventional Bayern that we saw for about an hour last Wednesday, a Bayern that could argue they held their own up until Messi grabbed the opener.
It all depends on how you read into the match as to how successful that approach was by Guardiola, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions ready for the start of tomorrow’s match.
FC Barcelona 3-0 Bayern Munich – 6th May 2015 – UEFA Champions League
Guardiola madness. Chances aplenty. Normality. Stalemate. Pressure. Response. Messi. MESSI. Memes. Celebrations. Counter. Neymar. Berlin?
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Bayern (4-2-2-2): Neuer; Rafinha, Boateng, Benatia, Bernat; Alonso, Lahm; Thiago, Gotze; Muller, Lewandowski
After getting the first-leg right, I’m doomed for failure on this one. Or, maybe I’ll be prophetic with my second prediction of Barça.