It’s the big one! Barça v Bayern, and why the Blaugrana will advance

It’s boxing day.

Not the traditional kind, but my gloves are on. Why? Because of the Champions League draw in which Barça drew Bayern Munich and culer boots began to tremble in fear.

If Bayern advances against Barça, fair on them, but I don’t think that they are going to, the magic elf that is coaching them notwithstanding. I have my reasons, that boil down to something more than “Because Barça is the best team in the world right now.” So let’s get to it.

Messi

Why does it always come down to Messi? Because he is the best player on the planet. But it’s a bit more complex than that because he is also a whimsical force of nature who can alter a match whenever he decides. Atleti discovered this in the 3-1 Camp Nou loss that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated. Atleti flooded the midfield, deciding to contest the battle on Barça’s traditional battleground. But from that first attack in which Messi took the ball and ran, pell-mell at the Atleti defense in a way that left it completely devoid of any and all options was when his real power as a player became clear for many.

It has always been true that people assumed that Messi could be stopped in a traditional sense. Foul him, put 4 defenders on him, etc. In the past that has certainly been the case. This season, as he has embraced a true leadership role in doing whatever he thinks needs to happen to help his team win (given carte blanche to do so by his coach), it is increasingly true that the only person who can stop Messi is Messi. Some matches he is unstoppable, other matches he is closer to “normal.”

But I think it is ultimately the player’s choice of which Messi shows up. Messi also knows that he has a limited number of matches at that level in his tank. I would argue for more rest for him to ensure that he has even more matches of that level in his tank, so that he doesn’t have to shuffle around against Almeria, but that ship has sailed. Messi is going to play every match that he isn’t injured or suspended, and that’s that. So it is up to the player to pick and choose which matches That Messi is going to show up.

As pertinent to matters is that Bayern don’t have a player like that, a player who can decide that “Today will be the day that I will win this match for my team by being unplayable.” Robben is an exceptional player, but you know what you are going to get. Ribery isn’t what he once was but even at his best, he wasn’t the kind of player who made the other 21 players on the pitch irrelevant. Yes, Bayern have a fine system and an excellent coach. But sometimes, when you have two teams who are close to equals – and make no mistake, that situation exists here – one player can turn the tie.

Barça has that player in Messi. (I know. I hate him, blablabla. But still.)

The new (old) Barça

Henry/Eto’o/Messi is now Neymar/Suarez/Messi. What are the differences between then and now? In the past, the attacking trident was being fed by a fully in-prime Xaviniesta, and it was amazing. In the present, Xaviniesta is diminished by time, so Enrique has had to devise a different system to work within and around opponents, while still getting the ball to the right players at the right time.

What hasn’t changed is that the front three is not only potent as hell, but the best attacking trident in world football, each capable of individually deciding a match. Suarez isn’t as blindingly fast or as capable of the constant, crazy movement that Eto’o was, but in place of that he brings an array of passing and shotmaking that Eto’o didn’t offer. Henry was Henry. But Neymar, with his array of skills, is a combination of Iniesta and Henry. He can score and create, make space from nothing or drive to the goal himself. And Messi is Messi.

The Barça midfield isn’t the metronomic force that it was back when a world wasn’t ready for what it was about to see. Some of that is a consequence of time, some how opponents are lining up to face the team, in a way that can disrupt a precision attack. The versatility that has been added in the form of Ivan Rakitic is not to be underestimated. He is more than Dani Alves’ babysitter. His movement and intelligence of movement leaves him more often than not, in the right place at the right time. Alves has benefited from this, as has Busquets.

As the players have said, Barça isn’t playing all that differently from how it always has, despite the necessity of people to believe that it is. But the team has added wrinkles and adaptations that I believe make it better equipped to manage against a top-quality European opponent.

The power of memory

In that now famous, epoch-defining 7-0 aggregate loss to Bayern, that distracted, injured, coach-less mess of a team that lacked its best player went down to an opponent that was allowed its way on the pitch. This time, it’s different. There is a coach, the team is fit, focused and in form. There is no sadness, no tragedy or illness of beloved colleagues – just a fit, nasty bunch of players that has delivered against big opponents all but two times this season. And those two times were in the balance, lest we forget. Against RM, imagine how different the match would have been had Neymar and then Messi notched chances that they usually score. Against PSG at Parc Des Princes, the last half-hour of that match has PSG cowering in front of its own net. Only a couple of off finishes and a heroic Marquinhos intervention against Alba prevented that loss from becoming a draw or even a win.

Players remember humiliations, and the core of this Barca team was there for the 7-0. I can assure you that it hurts, even today. Ugly losses always do, and players always crave chances to avenge a beating. Our team has its chance, and rest assured they are relishing and anticipating it.

And I, for one, hope that the Camp Nou gives Guardiola the greeting that a rival coach should get in a Champions League semi-final home leg. Save the respectful applause stuff for later. I don’t expect a blizzard of flying pig heads, but if my Barcelona-based culers make things all nice and cuddly, I will be disappointed. This should be a hostile, away crowd, no matter who coaches them and who is on their roster. The players will need that edge, that buzz. For anyone who has ever been in the stands for a Classic as the RM players take to the pitch for warmups, if a home team can’t hear … nay, FEEL that ire and get pumped to give those folks a beatdown, that team isn’t human.

History

This history, this karma is the reason this tie is happening, the “ex” factor. Guardiola is the most successful coach in Barça history, and culers still get misty-eyed when his name comes up. Even those like me who don’t, still have the deepest respect for what he did while at the club. He is a brilliant, innovative coach who has an intangible in that many culers believe that much of the reason that he isn’t still at the club, despite what Guardiola has said, is the board. That makes the relationship kinda odd, because the board sucks, so an enemy of my enemy is a friend, right? Well, not quite exactly fully. But that history, those memories of victory parades and dominance will make the feelings of that home leg very odd for many.

I don’t know the “real” reason Guardiola left. Only he, his friends and family do. But I know he left in circumstances that were complex. In many ways he’s like the ex that just moved on. You still love them. They cooked, cleaned and the house always smelled like peppermint, except on waffle days. That’s what you remember. And it’s wonderful, right? Good.

And then there is Thiago. Many workplaces have challenges retaining young, talented employees, who are in demand. They leave for better jobs, and as much as employers gnash teeth and rend garments, the person is gone, nonetheless. Football is different from the real world in that you often get recompense for losing an employee in the form of millions of Euros, which leaves a fan base to debate whether the fee was sufficient/board was stupid/etc, etc.

Irrespective of the real reasons, which are as murky as the ultimate reasons for Guardiola leaving, Thiaga Alcantara left for a better job. Guile, a mean ol’ board, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, a coach who didn’t cherish and play him enough, ambition, who the hell knows. But he activated his buyout clause that was low because of a negotiated contract stipulation, and left for a big European rival. And you know what? I would do the exact same thing in his situation. At Barça you have tradition, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and a Neymar running around. At your potential new job, you have a beloved former coach (at both key levels) who is saying “I want him and only him,” and that team is a European juggernaut. You get a raise, primo status and you start, without question. I wouldn’t be able to pack my bags fast enough.

But that complex history makes both the Thiago and Guardiola situations fraught for so many culers. Both are the “ones that got away,” history that will make this tie pulsate with even more of that “morbo,” a word traditionally reserved for Spain-on-Spain encounters.

What about weaknesses?

Every team has weaknesses. If the front three don’t add their work rates to the defensive side of things, Barca is going to be in trouble. Robben is big, fast and strong and will vex Jordi Alba to a level that he hasn’t yet seen this season. Lucas Moura in the away PSG group stage leg might have been as close as he’s come. It will be a challenge. Might Enrique opt for a big, fast, physical LB presence and slide Mathieu over there? Possible, but unlikely. Even though the performance of Mathieu in the away Classic has grown (or more correctly, diminished) in its folkloric status, it isn’t like Enrique to disturb the balance of his gala XI, except in cases of injury or substitution. So Alba will have a hard time, which means that Neymar will have a hard time because it will be up to him to buttress the defensive efforts against Robben.

On the right, Messi and Rakitic are going to have to help against Ribery, who is more than capable of dealing killer blows. In the cases of Messi and Neymar, this will detract from their offensive efforts of necessity, but a 2-1 win is better than a 4-2 loss. It will be more important to not concede goals, as it is without question that Barça will score.

Suarez is a potential weakness even as he is also a point of unquestioned strength. This is as deep into the Champions League as he has ever been, even as he has seen big stages before in international competition. At those moments we have ignominy in a handball and an Italian meal. We also have a pair of spectacular goals against England. As the stakes mount, so does the pressure. A player will either crack, thrive or implode. Suarez has demonstrated that he is capable of the last two. Let’s hope that he isn’t capable of the first, or it will be a very long pair of matches against Bayern.

Barça should be working on finishing, because Neuer isn’t going to allow that many chances. He is the best keeper in the game, without question. But because he also functions as an outfield player, he has the opportunity to influence play in a way that a more traditional keeper doesn’t offer. So he might well be the one tackling Neymar at a key moment of a match, or stonewalling Suarez outside the box should his first touch get a bit loose.

Last season’s defense would have worried me a lot more – even as its weakness was exaggerated – than this season’s, which is demonstrating the hard work that Enrique and his coaching staff have put in.

Finally

Bayern is a formidable opponent. Even Enrique has said that Guardiola is the best coach in the game right now, even though Mourinho might argue with that (imagine that!). The strength of their team isn’t a series of transcendent talents even as they have exceptionally talented players. But they offer a depth of quality that is enviable, a depth that has served them well in this year’s European campaign.

But they are not unbeatable, not supermen. As Guardiola said, if they make the kinds of errors that they made against Porto, the tie will be over at the end of the first leg. That 3-1 away loss was cold water in the face for Bayern. Against Barça it would be a death sentence, and Guardiola knows that. He will be devising a way to neutralize Messi, Neymar and Suarez while ensuring that the flank play of Alves and Alba won’t be a problem. In the new Enrique system, the biggest passing numbers have moved from midfielders to the fullbacks, particularly Alba. This means that if Robben isn’t defending as well as he attacks, Alba will be giving Bayern almost as much trouble as Robben will, so the Dutchman had better be on his toes.

Without question, Barça will be the most formidable challenge that Bayern has faced. Last season they ran up against RM and got their clocks cleaned. That RM wasn’t as good as this Barça. The individual brilliance that has been scoffed at by purist culers this season might be the exact trick that will be required to get Barça over the edge. A system can be coached against, simulated and accounted for. A bit of crazy brilliance can’t be managed. Ancelotti had everything right except that Suarez match winner. Because you can’t control crazy.

I think that Barça will advance, but it will be tight. The first leg being at the Camp Nou is less of a disadvantage for Barça, who will be playing the same whether at home or at the Allianz. Away goals are obviously crucial and potentially tie-deciding. I think the away leg will be the decider. Though scorelines are always impossible to predict, I see a low-scoring draw at the Camp Nou and a Barça win at the Allianz, with Neymar and Suarez being more decisive than Messi.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

29 Comments

  1. Cyclops
    April 24, 2015

    Oh well, this article gives hope to the faint-hearted…Though i really cant get the rationale for “doubting”, poeple and their reactions are just funny really…
    But mathieu for Alba ? hell no!..Sacrificing our attacking impetus, for defensive stability we can still get, if the whole team put in a big defensive shift, is miserable…We’d just have relieve bayern of some very important pressure…And bayern wouldnt mind buying us champange for that, so thats nay nay….
    I did said at some point, superior tactics and system could come in handy…I just want to belive that we edge it in that aspects when compared to bayern, i seriously want to hope…And adding the numerous individual brilliance we’ve got in our tank, i want to believe we wont just get through, but a crisp revenge is on the cards

  2. ooga aga
    April 24, 2015

    can anyone give the latest update on the injury and disciplinary (yellow cards) status of Bayern? thanks.

    • 42
      April 24, 2015

      As far as I know, Alaba and Badstuber are out for season; Benatia and Ribery can’t make it for the 1st leg but they *might* be able to play in the 2nd leg; both Javi Martinez and Robben are back to training already and looks like they can catch the 1st leg. (p.s. I just heard their right back Rafinha also got injured today, they can’t catch a break can they?)

      As for yellow cards, new rules in UCL this year say all yellow cards are cleared as soon as teams reach semi-finals. So none.

    • ciaran
      April 24, 2015

      All cards are wiped out for the semis although a ban received from the quarters still count. I don’t believe that they have any suspensions as we don’t either

  3. agar2515
    April 24, 2015

    It really is a shame how much of a specter that 7-0 has become for people. Too many forget the numerous, negative circumstances around that tie.
    With Our front three, a solid D anchored by the best CB in the world I believe in our chances vs. any team in the world…
    What REALLY needs to happen though for us to succeed imo is for Rakatic to play the games of his life. He will be incredibly key to holding down some sort of midfield control by disrupting Bayerns mid as much as he can.
    Last time we played the other FCB we deployed the walking Cesc in midfield AND Song ( Pedro in attack too lol) , a recipe for disaster ( which it was).

  4. agar2515
    April 24, 2015

    If reports are to be believed, Gundogan is all but a MUnited player, shame to miss out on someone with his profile :-/

    • morph73
      April 24, 2015

      Its been a long time that I’ve responded on this forum but I’m sorry to say that your statement is something that I wouldn’t take seriously considering the amount of midfield talent we currently have and the talent for the future that we have…
      I would like to be convinced otherwise if you think am wrong in my thinking…
      There isn’t any kind of offence or disrespect I mean just a valid point in my perspective…

    • morph73
      April 24, 2015

      By seriously I mean missing out on Gundogan…

    • morph73
      April 24, 2015

      It’s been so long that I’ve visited this forum that I don’t remember that I can’t delete/edit my posts but I meant I can’t take loosing out on Gundogan as a shock or a loss… There are guys better than him in the team itself…
      As stated above please feel free to convince me that I’m wrong and I duly apologize beforehand if I’ve offended you in any way…

  5. April 24, 2015

    There won’t be a post about it, but tomorrow is the anniversary of the passing of our Mister, Tito Vilanova. Spare a moment to think of a lovely, lovely man.

    • Yaredinho
      April 24, 2015

      Kxevin,

      Thanks for the reminder. What a loss it still is!

  6. Inamess
    April 24, 2015

    Well I never hid the fact that I did not want anything to do with this tie, but since it has to be let me lay out some positive features:

    1) We get Bayern while they are still banged up. Barca, on the other hand will be quite healthy and will have a chance to rest while we have relatively easy games after Espanyol.

    2) Pep has a fairly poor record in semi-final ties and is likely to try some kind of “brilliant” tactical tinkering that will likely backfire as it did against RM.

    3) Bayern has not beaten any great teams all year and lost to Man City and Wolfsberg. Even their one victory against Man U was the result of a late Dante goal.

    4) If we beat Bayern and then go on to win the treble we will be the undisputed Champions of World Football and Pep will definitely leave Bayern by 2016 seeking his fortunes at the next club that will overpay for his services.

    The importance of the club and the Champions League this year can not be underestimated. If RM or Bayern win it would be devastating. It’s likely the only way we can stop that from happening is to take out them out ourselves. Porto and Atletico tried but now we must take fate into our own hands. I want to destroy these clubs. Nothing would be sweeter than to raise all three trophies this year and take the scalps of two once mighty clubs along the way.

    • Inamess
      April 24, 2015

      *Man City not Man U

  7. luisthebeast
    April 24, 2015

    So Cordoba lost tonight and they are relegated if they dont win the next game.We play them away before the first semi and we can rest some players there.After we have Sociedad at home,a team with nothing to play for.So a win against Espanyol and we will have the chance to be very well prepared for the semis and use the games against Getafe Cordoba and Sociedad for rest and some tactical experiments(i hope Lucho;-))And if madrid drop only two points in the next 4 games we will go to Atletiko after the second semi and a draw or a loss will be no dramatic.

  8. Son
    April 25, 2015

    I would like to know what bayern fans will think about the draw. Anyone knows their english blog like us? Incase if they have one.

  9. Inamess
    April 25, 2015

    One interesting factor of the Bayern draw is the different benefits of short term excitment vs long term results. For example lets take a specific scenario that did not happen but very well could have recently:

    1) Had we won in Sevilla and Bayern lost against Porto and RM against Atletico we would be in a very different spot to the situation we face today. RMs season would be over and we would be the overwhelming favorites to win the CL. Had we gone on to the treble from there it would ultimately have been a much easier accomplishment. As it stands right now we are in for a lot of excitement but also a lot more uncertainty. A treble now would be sweeter for sure because it is significantly more difficult.

    However, fans ultimately judge their seasons by different standards and a multi-trophy year is remembered as such whether the accomplishment was difficult or not. Real has won the European championship 10 times though the first five were when it was a small time competition featuring only a few teams and probably not taken nearly as seriously. So the question becomes: Is it irrational for fans to not want the easiest path to victory. When Barca is leading 2-0 against Sevilla, conceding a goal makes the game more exciting than scoring a third but also can lead to disaster. Is wishing for Barca to play Bayern just because the games would be awesome rather than a perhaps more bland tie with Juve an equally irrational desire?

  10. Chiu
    April 25, 2015

    – I love the air of optimism from this article. Our current condition is 360 degree different with that 7-0 defeat. Injured Messi in both leg was huge setback on quality, worsened by auto-pilot team (no coach) made the tie pretty easy for Bayern. This time it will be an equal heavyweight clash.

    – Now, we are also stronger in the air with some new players with height (Suarez, Mathiue, Rakitic) plus more “physical” than two years ago. Compounded with improved handling of set pieces both in attack or defense. Height and pyhsicality are crucial againts team with a lot of big man like Bayern.

    – It will be interesting also to see Pep’s tactic against his own football philosophy. Expecting an open/attacking game from both team in the SF stage would be too naive. I think both team would play with slower tempo and wait the chances arise. Small margin score would be a likely outcome, or even the away goals rule decide the match. I predict we win 1-0 or 2-1 home and a draw away

    This will be the real litmus test to see whether we are ready to regain our status as the best club in the world. Visca Barca!

  11. April 25, 2015

    Yesterday on twitter I asked whether culers remember the Alianz swimming pool, Iniesta, Messi and Busquets being kicked until they lost the ball, the foul on Alves for the offside goal of Bayern, the foul on Alba for Robben’s goal.

    Not surprisingly, many of us don’t. It is painful to remember that. I was going to make this a longer post, but let’s leave it for another time when it will have more relevance.

    But remember we must.

  12. April 25, 2015

    For today, less than three hours until the away Espanyol game.

  13. Cyclops
    April 25, 2015

    True that…It will be great, awsome, a really really wonderfull thing if we could go on to win the treble and in the process skin the hide of our rivals….Its probably will be the sweetest after lollipops( yeah, i like lollipops)…But if we lose out, the consequences, the realities after that would be really, really dire
    I dont want to even start from a loss to bayern, but imagine that…A loss to bayern, and then they and RM goes on to play the final, and bayern ends up winning- or even RM winning….GEEZ, we wont ever hear the last of it all…RM winning their 11th CL or bayern their 6th, and it all came through one of them defeating us
    If that happens, atleast for a while, we can conveniently forget about reclaiming our spot as the best team in the world… If after such a cataclysmic event you ever attempt to even whisper how we are among even the top two in the world, everyone will be like DUH …Now i really dont think i like such a future…Except we probably win the treble immediately the next season, while dishing out humbling defeats of an aggregate score of 11-0 each to RM, bayern, and their co-horts, and a combined aggregate score of about 50-0 to them all, then its going to be one long bleak couple of years- from the points of my crystal bulb
    Now in oder to make sure that dosnt happen, with a cry of solidarity and chants of war lets rally around the flag , and with aggresion that belies our demeanour, lets go skin the liver of those three petite clubs with little men, that stands between us and glory!

  14. Rami
    April 25, 2015

    If reaching the copa del ray final, Being 2 points ahead in a league soon to be wrapped up, And the favorites to win the CL, Yet still not enough to enlist the confidence of your fans, Then the players and coaching staff might as well quit their jobs, Go home and find something better to do.

    The form we’re in right now, Isn’t just good, Or great, Or superb, It’s absolutely phenomenal!, The best we’ve been since 2011, And most likely the best we’ll see in the few years ahead, If anyone think we’ll be even better next season or the one after, should lower his expectations.
    This is as good as it can get, Yet some seem to take it for granted.

    Bayern should be the one who’s afraid, And in my honest opinion, They’re in for a shock, Just like the one we had 2 years ago against them, We’re now nothing like that team, And neither are they.

    A treble isn’t a far fetched dream, At least for me.

  15. Cyclops
    April 25, 2015

    My last post was actually replying inamess first post, coudnt quite get the damn reply tag to work

  16. Cyclops
    April 25, 2015

    Right on cue Rami, you just said everything that’s got to be said concerning that!

  17. barca96
    April 25, 2015

    Messi and Pique should be subbed out for Pedro and Bartra.

    • barca96
      April 25, 2015

      Now Messi definitely needs to come off to protect him from injury. With the way things are going on now I wouldn’t be surprised.

  18. barca96
    April 25, 2015

    It seems that Espanyol players can get away with murder.

  19. haroldwrites
    April 28, 2015

    Barca has this season defeated:

    European Champions (Real Madrid (UCL) & Sevilla (UEL))

    French Champions (PSG)

    English Champions (Man City)

    Spanish Champions (Atletico Madrid)

    Also, Messi, Neymar and Suarez have all scored a combined 97 goals!!!!!

    See guys, I don’t know how else to tell you Baryern are going to get burnt alive. Pep has just one game plan. Pass the ball around and hope for a lack of concentration in the defence. Barca have played that game plan before, so.. BIG DEAL….. Also, this season, Barca has the best defence (in Spain) (have conceded just 19 goals in as many games). If Barca would take half the chances they’ll create, dear Bavarians, fear for dear life.

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