FC Barcelona. An amazing spectacle. Some say, the world’s best team. Countless accolades, winners medals and adjectives have been showered on Los Azulgranes during the course of the past five years.
Ever since Pep Guardiola took over a Barca that needed to go through the Knockout Qualifying Rounds of the UEFA Champions League to get into the tournament that crowned the sextuple achievements.
Ever since Ronaldinho passed that baton on to Messi, since the youth system produced talents to match those in the first team. The individual disappeared from FC Barcelona and the collective became more important.
Relative unknowns were signed as household names were sold, and Barca transitioned from a good team in the top four of Spanish football to the efficient submission machine it is today. Individual skill and ability were replaced by possession football and the ability to out pass and outscore the opponent.
But for the first time since Ronaldinho departed, we felt the need for an individual to rescue us. Against the club from where Dinho arrived to Barcelona, the Catalan giants called upon a half fit Leo Messi. Their savior, their inspiration. Barcelona progressed on away goals to the semi finals of the 2013 Champions League. And they did so by the skin of their teeth.
Across the continent, not too far from Spain, Bayern Munchen produced yet another killer performance. Having just thrashed Hamburg SV by nine goals to two, the Roten completed an impressive four goal rout of Juventus. Two legs, four goals. Straightforward. Infact, so easy did those two wins look on paper that they reminded me, eerily of the FC Barcelona of 2008-09.
Brushing away an opponent that was leading their own domestic league by quite a margin, FC Hollywood looked brilliant. Untouchable. Indomitable.
All is not well though. People tend to ignore the fact that Arsenal (yes, the perennial EPL underachievers for their past history) almost knocked this Bayern Munich side out, in Munich. With a varied line-up of stars and their captain missing.
So when the semi-final draws took place in Nyon, and Barcelona drew Bayern Munchen, I was afraid. And yet, somehow there was a feeling that it is doable. Very few opponents are so like each other that both teams have a 50-50 chance of progressing. But this UEFA Champions League draw is perfection. To draw both the league leading sides, in arguably the best leagues in Europe against each other. Leagues that are pretty much settled. Two teams with confidence and belief sky high. One propelled forward by the need to win their departing coach everything before them. One with the need to show that health problems can be overcome. No matter how far you think they’re gone, these heroes, on and off field return.
Let’s get one thing straight. These are the two best teams in Europe in the last five years. Both teams have made it to the finals in the last five years. Barcelona winning and Bayern losing their mega-fixtures.
Both teams being brilliant in attack. With a specific game plan for one, and the other changeable and adaptable. One with the ability to grind out results, the other to absolutely blow away the opposition.
Both teams have weaknesses. Bayern are mentally a little weaker then Barcelona. Barcelona have a horrible back-line that is only marginally better than Arsenal’s (there, I said it!) at this point.
This is why this match will be so intriguing, so brilliant. The first of the Champions League semi finals promises to be an absolute cracker.
Key Battles – FC Bayern Munchen v. FC Barcelona
Sergio Busquets v. The Bayern Attack:
Often the most undervalued and underrated player at the Catalan giants. Busquets may have a penchant for the naughty tackle and the play acting but he more than makes up for it with his technique, vision and passing ability. Constantly circulating the ball between attack, midfield and defense and even dropping back behind the defense to collect the ball from the goalkeeper, acting almost as a sweeper all over the field. He will be vital to the Barcelona back four and front five getting their supply going. His ability to intercept balls sent forward from the Bayern backline and midfield will be crucial as the pace of Ribery, Robben and Mandzukic and the ball will be difficult. Barcelona fans must also pray that Mario Gomez somehow gets handed a start. His sedate nature when pressing on the ball and reluctance to track back could prove vital to the Blaugrana’s chances.
Messi – Xavi – Iniesta – Alves v. The Bayern Back Five:
Yes, I said back five. Manuel Neuer is one of the top goalkeepers in the world. His ability on and off the ball and his reflexes for his huge frame make him one of the top goalkeepers in world football. Neuer, along with Dante and Jerome Boateng will have to keep the Barcelona quartet of players quiet. Messi, as much as teams try to stop him his magical but cut off his supply lines from Xavi, Iniesta and Alves and he begins to fade out of the game. Not fouling him and still stopping him is impossible, so Bayern need to have a contingency plan in case they face suspensions in the second leg. The back five must be prepared to run all through the ninety minutes of this fixture. Bastian Schweinsteiger must also ensure that he drops deep enough and is able to circulate the ball to the forward line at Bayern. He is as important as Busquets, if not more so to Bayern.
Mental ability v. Wrecked defense:
This is where we lose track of statistics and go into the deeper psychology of these fixtures. No matter their mental state currently in the league, Bayern Munich have a tendency to drop off the pace and concede the odd goal in their maulings of opposition. If they do that against Barcelona, with their pass and move style of football they could be in big trouble. Absolute hardiness and focus is the call of the day. Barcelona have their own issue in defense, with effectively fifth choice center-back Adriano most probably getting the nod. Mandzukic and Ribery will be crucial to exploiting this for the German side.
Allianz Arena v. Nou Camp:
Perhaps the most overlooked factor in all great matches. The crowd or the 12th man in the case of FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich will be vital. Both the Allianz Arena and the Nou Camp are veritable fortresses in their own right. The crowd’s ability to rouse their team into a magical performance will be vital to both side’s chances over the two legs.
With that, we conclude the first part of our two-part semi final preview.
The battle of the surrendering league Champions – Borussia Dortmund v. Real Madrid CF.