FC Barcelona giveth, FC Barcelona can taketh away. Pep Guardiola makes his return to the Camp Nou tomorrow knowing that his season and indeed the latest chapter of his illustrious managerial career may well be defined by his accomplishments in this tie against his former club. In spite of their status as two of the premier clubs in world football, both FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich enter this match with a point to prove as they aim to right the wrongs that they have suffered in the past season or two.
For FC Barcelona, this match is of course about revenge. It wasn’t enough for Bayern Munich to humiliate them home and away in 2013; no, they had to take our former manager, one of our icons and lavish their superiority in our faces.
If the 7-0 drubbing was a knockout blow, the appointment of Pep Guardiola to lead an already treble-winning side was the equivalent of Bayern kicking us while we were down. With off the field events truly transpiring against us in every sense, Barcelona struggled to recover from this brutal defeat and psychologically, the scars were there for all to see the following campaign.
A quarter-final exit was our reward for a mediocre display against Atletico Madrid in last season’s competition as the Blaugrana star continued to fade.
Our place amongst Europe’s elite was under threat once again, perhaps for the first time since 2008 and FC Barcelona responded in similar fashion. Another former club captain was handed the reins and complete control at the club. Then, Pep Guardiola. Now, Luis Enrique.
His first action as head coach was to revamp the playing squad; tough decisions were made, not dissimilar to those taken by Guardiola roughly six years prior. Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Alexis Sánchez; expensive mistakes were discarded and were followed out the door by a couple of club icons. Carles Puyol hung up his boots and Victor Valdés left in search of a new challenge.
Everything and everyone that embodied the disappointment of the previous two seasons were unceremoniously shown the door, replaced by players who would spearhead the new, Luis Enrique influenced era.
The perfect mix of talent, tactical discipline and intensity; the likes of Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitić were acquired for vast sums of money and have come to characterise Barça 2.0. This is a club reborn, rejuvenated, reimagined for the present day.
And whether it’s vengeance for 2013, atonement for 2014, or to prove a point against a former manager; there is no shortage of narratives accompanying this game for the Blaugrana. Barça have it all to play for and based on recent performances, they will not be denied.
For Bayern and for Pep Guardiola on the other hand, this match is all about recapturing past glories and reliving those golden days. It’s been two years now since Bayern last lifted the trophy, and since that famous aggregate victory over the Blaugrana, the Bavarians have stagnated while the rest of the footballing world has moved on around them.
And perhaps one of the key factors behind that has been the appointment of Pep Guardiola. The Catalan genius revolutionised football at FC Barcelona but his spell at Bayern can probably be summarised by his attempts to implement the same old ideas and coming up short. Accusations that he is trying to force square pegs into round holes are not unfounded and Bayern have suffered as a consequence.
From treble winners to Real Madrid whipping boys; the transformation and decline we witnessed last season was amongst the most shocking we had seen in the football world, at least since Barcelona’s fall from grace over two legs against the Bundesliga champions. As Barça manager, Guardiola was used to doling out the punishment to Real, now here he was on the receiving end, powerless to stop it.
In some respects, he recognised his mistakes and realised that he needed to make some adjustments. But rather than admit his philosophy was outdated, Guardiola’s actions suggested that he placed the blame on the players at his disposal; Xabi Alonso was brought in as Pep tried to replicate his Barça system, only this time with Alonso at pivote instead of Sergio Busquets. Mehdi Benatia was brought in as a ball-playing defender capable of thriving in a high defensive line, while Juan Bernat added dynamism to the flank.
As of yet, the results have been mixed. While Bayern have cantered to the Bundesliga title, that’s no break from routine; instead the most eye-catching moments have been their humbling defeats against VFL Wolfsburg and FC Porto, not to mention their continuing inability to consistently defeat Borussia Dortmund.
Bayern were supposed to have settled into Guardiola’s philosophy by now; their performances over these two matches against FC Barcelona will prove once and for all whether they’ve caught on, or whether for the first time in his managerial career, Guardiola is destined for (relative) failure.
Forget Mayweather vs Pacquaio; FC Barcelona vs Bayern Munich is going to the fight of the century.
Time converter at worldtimebuddy.com
Heading into their biggest, most important match of the season so far, Luis Enrique will be pleased that he has virtually no injury concerns to deal with. There were question marks over the fitness of Jordi Alba on Monday as the Catalan full-back missed training with some discomfort, but he has recovered, only for Jeremy Mathieu to take his place on the sideline.
An Achilles injury has struck the Frenchman down on the eve of what could have been the biggest game of his career. It’s sure to be a disappointment for both the player, and indeed the club after we parted with €20 million to procure his services from Valencia CF, but que sera, sera and whatnot. Instead of ruing our absences, we should focus on the positives and on how the players available and at our disposal can defeat Bayern Munich.
For instance, what good is there debating whether Marc-André ter Stegen should be starting ahead of Claudio Bravo in the UEFA Champions League?
Yes, we know that the Chilean has kept a staggering 21 clean sheets thus far this season and is on course to cruise to his first Zamora trophy, but ter Stegen is our guy for the Champions League and that’s that.
It seems odd to "defend" the goalkeeper that the majority of Culés wish was our undisputed starter, but let’s run with it for a moment, if only to give ter Stegen the credit he deserves – something I probably haven’t done often enough since his arrival.
After all, he’s played fewer than 20 matches for FC Barcelona; he’s had to adapt to a new culture, learn a new language and pick up one of the most complex footballing philosophies, all at such a tender age playing in one of the highest pressure positions on the pitch. So, when you look at his performances and you look at his statistics – an impressive nine clean sheets in 17 appearances – it’s only then you realise the potential that ter Stegen possesses.
At the Camp Nou in the UEFA Champions League, ter Stegen has kept three clean sheets and conceded just two goals in five appearances. Sure, there have been odd moments where he’s travelled quite far out of his area with mixed results, but by and large, ter Stegen has been incredible. With Germany coach, Joachim Löw certain to be watching tomorrow evening, ter Stegen has an opportunity to demonstrate why he is worthy of a call up to the German National Team squad.
Chances are he will grab it with both hands.
In defense, Dani Alves will start at right-back as he edges ever closer to extending his seven year stint in Catalunya. Alves was brought to the club by Guardiola and enjoyed the best spell of his career under the guidance of the Catalan coach, so tomorrow’s match is sure to stir up some emotions with our outspoken Brazilian full-back. That’s especially true knowing that Alves continues to face accusations that his best years are behind him, that he is a washed-up has-been.
What better stage to demonstrate how wrong those naysayers are than a UEFA Champions League semi-final against your former coach, and one of the best teams in the world?
Against Manchester City, Alves was impeccable. Against Paris Saint-Germain, Alves was superb. This past weekend even, against Cordoba in the sweltering heat, Alves was sublime. If you ask me, that’s not the kind of form we expect from a washed-up old has-been. And heck, if you still disagree, point out one match against Atletico Madrid, Villarreal or Real Madrid for instance where Alves has faltered?
I’ll save you the time; he hasn’t – and perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Barça’s best spell in recent years ties in with Alves rediscovering his form.
Mini-rant over, let’s move onto the heart of defense and wax lyrical about Gerard Piqué. His goal at the weekend was his fifth of the La Liga season and seventh in all competitions, keeping him tied with Ivan Rakitić in fifth place in Barcelona’s goalscoring list. Consider just how impressive it is that Piqué, as a centre-half has seven goals to his name this season. Then, consider how impressive it is that a centre-half, who doesn’t take set-pieces á la Ronald Koeman, scores seven goals for FC Barcelona.
Impressive, huh? Oh, and imagine if that player scores those seven goals while leading and anchoring the best defense in Europe, just a season or two after he was written off by the footballing world as the overrated other-half of pop goddess, Shakira. Yeah, that pretty much sums up Gerard Piqué’s recent career in a nutshell; he’s affecting play at either ends of the field and based on his performances, has reclaimed his title as the best defender in the world.
Re-reading my match review for the last meeting between the two sides, it appears as though Gerard Piqué’s performance was one of the few positives from the aggregate mauling, even if he did score an unusual own-goal in front of his home crowd. Plus ça change, right?
And indeed, the same famous saying applies to the rest of the Barcelona defense. For all the pre-match build-up suggesting that Luis Enrique’s Barça are vastly different to the Barça that lost to Bayern, the one constant has been the defense. Alves on the right, Piqué and Mascherano in the middle with Jordi Alba on the left. We’ll have time to talk about Alba later, but for now, let’s turn our attentions to Javier Mascherano.
In one of Guardiola’s most famous moments at Barcelona, he addressed the world’s media prior to a UEFA Champions League semi-final against Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid, referring to the Special One as "el puto jefe, el puto amo", at least in the press room. And why? Well, my theory, as yet unconfirmed, is because he knew that while Mourinho was el puto jefe with the media, there’s only one puto jefe on the field – and that’s Javier Mascherano.
El Jefecito as he has been affectionately nicknamed had rarely, if ever, played as a central defender prior to his move to the Camp Nou. It was there, under Guardiola, that Mascherano began his transition from midfield destroyer to composed centre-half and in spite of the criticism he has received since making that switch, Mascherano to this day remains first choice for the Blaugrana in the heart of defense.
Sure, we’ve dabbled with Jeremy Mathieu, most recently in El Clasico, but by and large, Mascherano has always got the nod. Against Paris Saint-Germain, against Manchester City; in just about every big game, leaving that Clasico aside, we’ve seen Mascherano patrolling the field in the centre of defense.
Tito Vilanova trusted him there. Gerardo Martino was a fan as well. Pep Guardiola started the whole damn thing off for heaven’s sake; and Luis Enrique has been no different. When the game is on the line, you want players like Mascherano to be on the field, on your side, right in the thick of the action. Tomorrow is unlikely to be an exception.
There was some suggestion in the build-up that Jeremy Mathieu might have been favoured for his height, his natural strength and for the balance he provides to the backline, but that’s all moot now that he’s sidelined with an Achilles problem. Mascherano will start, and we know we can count on him to give it 110%, chasing down every lost cause and generally willing his side to victory with that trademark intensity. Carles Puyol might be gone, but his spirit lives on in Mascherano, that’s for sure.
Equally, with Mathieu watching on from the stands, we know that Jordi Alba will be favourite to start at left-back tomorrow, provided that he has shaken off the problem that caused him to miss training on Monday. In all honesty, most Culés would agree that we need Alba to be ready, we need him to be fit. And that’s not just because he offers an extra dimension to the Barça attack.
Rather, it’s his defensive qualities that set him apart from Adriano Correia who, whilst an admirable back-up and incredibly dependable utility man, simply doesn’t offer that all-round talent that Jordi brings to the table. He is vulnerable in the air, but almost every full-back is. He can get caught out, but again, there’s not a single full-back in the world who can argue that the same doesn’t happen to them.
However, there’s not another defender who can claim that they possess his pace, coupled with such a mature, developed reading of the game. When Alba is caught out, he often knows how he can recover and turns on the jets to get back in position and make the difference. Likewise, when his colleagues are found wanting, Alba is often there, making up for their mistakes. With Bayern likely to threaten on the counter-attack, Alba must be careful, but also knows that he could prove to be the difference between Barça conceding, or frustrating the weakened Bayern attack.
Moving onto the midfield, a lot has been made of Guardiola’s return, and about how he plans to deal with Lionel Messi. But really, aren’t they missing the point? If we want to talk about dealing with the monsters that Guardiola created, shouldn’t the focus be on Sergio Busquets?
One could easily make a case to suggest that Sergio Busquets has played as prominent a role in Barcelona’s post 2008 success as Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández or Andrés Iniesta. Obviously, not a greater role, but certainly Busquets has been of equal importance to this side, to this system and much of Barcelona’s form depends upon whether or not Busquets is on top of his game.
Without him at his best, recycling and retaining possession in the centre of the field, dictating the tempo of the match, Barça look laboured. At worst, they look lost and outright poor without him, or at least without him at his magical best.
Speaking prior to his 100th appearance for the club, Guardiola extolled Busquets’ talents, going as far as to say that if he could be reincarnated as any player, he would choose to be Sergio Busquets. So, if we’re really discussing how Guardiola plans to stop Lionel Messi, shouldn’t we also ask how he plans to stop Sergio Busquets? Because just as if Lionel Messi is on his game, if Busquets is at his best then Bayern have probably lost the battle before it’s even begun.
Now, here’s where Guardiola’s experience with FC Barcelona might not be the game-changer that it’s being labelled as: Ivan Rakitić, not Xavi Hernández, will start in midfield tomorrow and the Croatian midfielder represents perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between Pep’s Barcelona and Lucho’s Barcelona.
Well, differences might be a little harsh – let’s call it what it really is; Rakitić’s presence in midfield represents a subtle nuance, a slight tweak in the Barça system.
Same usual principles, just a slightly different delivery method.
We’ve replaced Xavi’s natural talent to dominate a match with Rakitić’s slightly more forceful ways; he perhaps doesn’t have that innate ability to control the ball as Xavi did and indeed still does, but that’s no criticism – no-one has possessed such an ability before in the long history of the sport. Instead, Rakitić has to couple his skills with work ethic, if the ball doesn’t find its way to him naturally, he goes out to get it.
Rakitić knows where to be, and when to be there at either end of the field and that is a trait that has revolutionised this side. A clear case in point would be the second-leg of the Round of 16 clash with Manchester City. While Neymar, Messi and Suarez were all being denied by Joe Hart, Ivan Rakitić had the wherewithal to sneak in behind the City defense unnoticed, and apply just the right type of finish to break the deadlock.
Defensively, Rakitić knows that he will occasionally have to cover for Dani Alves, or perhaps Gerard Piqué and to him, that’s perfectly natural and perfectly OK. He doesn’t mind it one bit, and it’s that selfless attitude that makes him such an incredible addition to this side. Heck, isn’t it what Rakitić offers that sets this side apart from the one that featured Cesc Fàbregas in midfield?
Maybe it would be overstating it to say he is of equal importance to someone like Messi or Suarez, but Rakitić really is a crucial member of the first team and I expect him to live up to that billing tomorrow. Bayern will be keen to impose their physical style on the midfield tomorrow through Xabi Alonso and through Bastian Schweinsteiger; it’s good to know we have someone like Rakitić who can not only cope with that, but raise the game that one level higher to help us establish ourselves on the field.
Then, his midfield partner will need no introduction. The last time that FC Barcelona played a fixture on 6th May, it was 2009 and Andrés Iniesta stole the headlines with one of the most iconic strikes in Barça history. For me, this special goal will always be equal to the likes of Koeman’s free-kick against Sampdoria in 1992; receiving that selfless pass from Lionel Messi and picking that postage stamp spot in the top corner of Petr Cech’s net at Stamford Bridge.
The relief, the excitement, the sheer elation that we felt with that goal...just thinking about it now makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. In a career littered with incredible moments, that must rank in the top two for Iniesta alongside the winner in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final – although contrary to popular belief, Iniesta still has time in his career to create more moments, more memories like that.
Some say that he’s overrated. I say that they’re stupid and don’t know football, but hey, I’ve always been the defensive, argumentative type. We saw it in the last round though; how can Iniesta be overrated when he dribbles round half the Paris Saint-Germain team to provide a jaw-dropping, inch-perfect assist for Neymar’s opener?
I’ll give you a clue, it’s a trick question because Andrés Iniesta is not overrated, nor has he ever been, or ever will. He’s just as talented as ever and when he needs to turn on the quality, you better believe he has spades of it in reserve. Typically, he’s saved those quality performances for the Champions League.
Dominating Manchester City? You betcha! Making a mockery of PSG? Why not!
Will Bayern Munich be next on the list? I sure as hell hope so, and know that Iniesta is more than capable – especially against a Guardiola midfield that will likely be lacking a midfield destroyer.
Oh yeah, something something Barcelona attack. Blah blah, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Do I really need to remind everyone just how good these guys are? We know that they’re going to start, and we know that individually, they are three of the top five players in the world. We also know that somehow, someway, playing alongside each other has actually managed to elevate their individual games to a higher standard than we’ve ever seen before.
There was talk prior to Suarez’ debut that introducing another superstar to the frontline would be of a detrimental effect to all three. Less chances, too many egos; you know, the usual media bullshit. Surprise, surprise though, they were wrong – and how. If anything, the trio are getting more chances and they’re playing with so much confidence that they are converting them at a higher clip than anyone previously imagined.
Egos? Well, look at the weekend’s result and performance against Cordoba to see how much of a non-issue that one is.
They all know their roles perfectly, and their friendship off the field really shines through on it. There’s never any bickering, any tension – just smiles and celebrations. So many celebrations. So many goals. 108 of them in fact. Did I mention that that’s only seven fewer than the entire Bayern Munich squad? I did? Well, it is a pretty crazy statistic, especially knowing that Suarez only made his debut at the end of October.
And yes, Barcelona did lose to Bayern Munich 0-7 on aggregate in 2013. Yes, Guardiola does know how Barça work, but he doesn’t know how this trio works. Bayern never beat this trio; heck, they didn’t even beat Lionel Messi in all honesty as the Argentine striker was injured for the previous tie a couple of years back.
Speaking in his press conference today, Lionel Messi was composed and measured in his responses to the inevitable questions about that defeat, his relationship with Pep and with Lucho. His answers offered no real insight, but his body language offered a lot.
Messi is calm. Messi is happy. Messi is focused. Not just on his own performances, but on leading this team to glory, no matter what, or more pertinently, who, stands in his way. Yes, Messi owes a lot to Guardiola, but Guardiola owes more to Messi. Yes, they were good friends while he was at the club but now? Well, they don’t have a lot of contact with one another. Tomorrow, they will be rivals, indirectly of course, and Messi will waste little time in causing Pep the same problems that he likes to cause for Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone or Jose Mourinho.
Truthfully, Messi and Barcelona have the upperhand and Pep knows it. He was asked today about how he plans to stop Messi, but he of all people knows best:
"A Messi no se le para. Estando como está, no le paras. No hay sistema defensivo, no hay entrenador"
You can’t stop him. There is no manager, no defensive system that can contain him. The only person who can limit what Lionel Messi does is Lionel Messi. And you know what? Watching that press conference, as silly as it sounds, I get the feeling that Messi is gearing up to make a statement; he has something special planned for Guardiola’s return, and I’m going out on a limb to suggest that while Pep the Barça fan will enjoy it, Pep the Bayern manager isn’t going to like it one bit.
Then we have Luis Suarez; Guardiola has never coached the Uruguayan, nor has he had to coach a side that has faced him. This should be a new experience for him, but perhaps Guardiola knows more than the average Culé would expect. After all, Suarez is represented by Guardiola’s own brother, Pere who serves as his agent.
Does that give Pep an upperhand? Probably not, but it might be a factor. Or it might not. There’s no real way of knowing, but it’s safe to say that Suarez will play a crucial role in determining Barça’s fate in this tie. And that’s what he signed for – to make the difference in cases like this, to ultimately win us trophies.
In the first-leg against Manchester City, Luis Suarez struck twice. In the first-leg against Paris Saint-Germain, Suarez scored another brace.
How about extending that tradition, eh Luisito?
Oh, and who can forget about Neymar? Brazil’s biggest sporting icon since Ayrton Senna, and arguably their finest footballer since Pele himself; Neymar is a once in a generation talent, and we’re blessed to have him as just one of this fabled triumvirate. That’s how impressive this attack is; someone like Neymar could lead any other club in the world, but here he is second fiddle, and remarkably happy about it.
Yet, when the situation calls for it, Neymar can take centre stage as well. Paris Saint-Germain know that all too well. Ask Real Madrid too – they can attest for one thing: that Neymar, like Lionel Messi and like Luis Suarez, can turn a game on his own.
So yeah, Bayern Munich beat us 7-0 in 2013, but as it turns out, we’ve progressed quite a bit since then.
David Alaba is out. Holger Badstuber is out. Add Sebastian Rode, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to that list as well. By the time we kick off, there’s a chance that Robert Lewandowski, while named to the squad, could essentially be another addition as if he doesn’t start, it’s going to be as a result of his various ailments. As a consequence, it’s safe to say that Bayern Munich are going through something of an injury crisis at the moment.
Of course, they would have loved to have had everyone available, but there’s no use in complaining and wishing for something that isn’t going to happen. They have to get on with it now, that’s football and sometimes it is unfair.
The question is: how will Pep Guardiola cope with all these absences and will he stay true to his ideals?
Manuel Neuer will start in goal after a somewhat subdued press conference today, but he is unlikely to know which defense will start in front of him. Will Pep start a back three? There’s a chance that he will, perhaps with Rafinha or Xabi Alonso operating as the third centre-half alongside Jerome Boateng and Mehdi Benatia.
If it’s the former, then Philipp Lahm may start at right wing-back, with Juan Bernat on the opposite flank. If it’s the latter, then Rafinha could start on the right, again with Bernat on the other flank.
Or, maybe Pep will abandon the idea of a back three against Barcelona’s incredible frontline and stick with a back four. Rafinha, Boateng and Benatia are virtually certain to start in that situation, although Pep could quite easily switch between Bernat and Lahm on the left.
The Bayern captain previously admitted that he doesn’t like playing on the left, but he might be Pep’s best option in a bid to contain Messi as much as possible. That is, assuming Pep doesn’t feel it’s necessary to use Lahm in midfield.
Speaking of which, Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcântara and Bastian Schweinsteiger would be my choice tomorrow if I were Guardiola, although I’m not and as such, I could be completely off base. However, continuing in my bid to play Pep, I’d think that Lewandowski will start, with Thomas Müller and Mario Gotze in support – although if he isn’t ready, Gotze may play as a false nine and Pep may switch tact to pack the midfield.
Then again, we know Pep, and we know that with him, anything is possible.
FC Barcelona 0-3 Bayern Munich – 1st May 2013 – UEFA Champions League
Bayern completed their rout of Barcelona’s injury-stricken, managerless team as goals from Arjen Robben and Thomas Müller either side of an own-goal from Gerard Piqué compounded the Blaugrana’s misery in this humiliating aggregate defeat.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Bayern (4-3-3): Neuer; Rafinha, Benatia, Boateng, Lahm; Alonso, Thiago, Schweinsteiger; Müller, Lewandowski, Gotze
I was thinking of a way to summarise my thoughts about the previous meeting between the two sides, and upon reflection, it seems as though the following excerpt from my post match review of that second-leg defeat is most appropriate.
It doesn’t matter what the scoreline was over the course of these two legs, I’m still proud of this side, proud of everything they have achieved over the past few years, and indeed everything they will achieve in the coming weeks, months and years.
Jugadors, seguidors, tots units fem força. Son molt anys plens d'afanys, son molts gols que hem cridat, i s'ha demostrat, s'ha demostrat, que mai ningu no ens podrà torcer!
Barcelona may have lost, but in my eyes at least, they will never be defeated. Until next time, Visca el Barça!
Long-time readers of the site will know first-hand that I’m an optimist at heart when it comes to this team, and my faith or support in the club never wavers, irrespective of how gloomy and negative the situation might be. Win, lose, or draw; I’m always here focusing on the positives, claiming that next time will be different; next time will be the time that everything clicks together.
Back on the 25th July, even before Barcelona had played their second pre-season friendly under Luis Enrique, I booked a hotel room for the night of the UEFA Champions League final in Berlin – and here we are, as a club, 180 minutes away from booking our place in that final.
All that stands in our way is Pep Guardiola; and for all Guardiola has given the club throughout the years, it’s possible that he will, once again, give us reason to believe tomorrow. If we can secure a positive result at the Camp Nou, maybe, just maybe all my positivity and optimism will have been founded.
Maybe, just maybe this club can dare to dream of an unprecedented second treble.
Oh, and 3-0 Barça.