Pep Guardiola, looking just a bit short on sleep, stood in the stadium which would go on to host the Champions League finale of 2012. His team had just beaten the occupants of that stadium, 0-2, in a rather entertaining friendly. The reporter asked Pep whether his team would be back for the finale in that evening in July 2011. Not too far away stood Bayern's grandad of a coach, Jupp Heynckes. Not one reporter went forward and popped this question to him. It was the old man who was standing on the touchline in the day of the finale. Mr Guardiola was mulling over his future at that time.
Bayern has proved many doubters wrong down the years. However, their next challenge is the untamed lion, FC Barcelona. How will they fare?
Injuries and Suspensions
Adriano and Bayern's darling Croat Mario Mandzukic are both suspended for the first leg. Holger Badstuber and Toni Kroos are out for the Bavarians. Bastian Schweinsteiger had a minor ankle problem. However, he is seemingly almost ready to go nonetheless. Barcelona will be without Captain Caveman, Carles Puyol and the Argentine Javier Mascherano. Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets have seemingly recovered from their injuries.
Mulling over Tactics
Bayern's 4-2-3-1 will tackle Barcelona's 4-3-3. Jupp Heynckes might shift to slightly more defensive minded 4-2-1-2-1 to protect the back four. I will explain more on that later. Firstly, let's remind ourselves of the beast that will enter the Allianz Arena. Barcelona presses the opposition incessantly. They dominate every match they play without exception. They have had more than 70 percent possession in the Champions League on average this season. PSG gave them a good game by counterattacking with pace.
Lionel Messi remains their main attraction. So many defenders get sucked into marking Messi every match that room opens up for every other player on the pitch. Playing Barcelona without Messi is like playing Bayern without Basti. Without Messi, Barcelona becomes a shadow of the team they are. Another player to be aware of on the pitch is Sergio Busquets. Known more for the controversies he has caused, Busquets give the vulnerable Barca back four plenty of protection.
The Barca back four will definitely be vulnerable without Puyol and Mascherano. Also, Jordi Alba can be got at. Schalke took advantage of him and Jeremy Mathieu in his Valencia days in the Champions League. Dani Alves rarely ever stays at the back. In 2009, he made some disrespectful comments before the quarterfinal tie against Bayern kicked off. Nonetheless, the two would not be starring for Barcelona if they were not decent defenders.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta pulls the strings in the middle. I would rather not pine about their talents as most of you have surely watched the duo play. They let Messi do whatever he wants to to every opposition by taking care of the rest of the matters- such as distributing play wonderfully. Xavi and Schweinsteiger have been compared a lot in recent years. Basti of course is slightly more defensive minded.
What Barcelona does not do and Bayern does is win plenty of aerial battles. No team has won more aerial battles barring PSG in this season's competition. The problem for Bayern though is that Mario Mandzukic wins plenty of those battles up front. He will be absent for this one. Mario Gomez can do the same job. Unfortunately though, Gomez does not do so. May be he will if he is told that Mandzukic's hair manages to stay perfect despite the number of times he knocks into an opponent.
Bayern's next weapon is their physicality. Barcelona is one of the smallest sides in Europe while Bayern is at the other end of the spectrum in that respect. Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm, despite the height disadvantage, are strong players. The rest of the normal starters are tall and mostly well built. (How many of us would be able to get up if we walked into Manuel Neuer or Javier Martinez?) This physical approach helps them in set pieces. Bayern has improved on corners this season. Barca's defenders will have to stand up to them.
The third weapon is the counterattack. Barca also counterattacks well. However, Bayern showed us this season that they can play out a match by simply playing on the counterattack. This approach will be difficult against Barcelona as the Catalans press continuously. However, they might have to resort to this considering controlling the match against Barca will be close to impossible.
Barca's weapons are endless. Their little passes leave opponents on the verge of suicide. What must be noted though is that Barcelona has no Plan B. Bayern does have a small Plan B. They used it against Borussia Dortmund. They might not do so in this match but it is worth talking about. Dortmund shut out Bayern's wings by double marking. So Dante, Basti and Co sent in long balls from defence straight to Mandzukic, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. This approach worked wonderfully.
Hypothetically, if Bayern executes the game plan to perfection, they can pull this off. But in the very Arena in which they were brought down to their knees by themselves, will they get cold feet against the greatest team in the world of football?
I previously mentioned I would explain the 4-2-1-2-1 later. Well, Bayern played in that formation against Real Madrid at times in the Allianz Arena last season with Kroos the connecting midfielder. What brought this to my mind was the Pokal victory against Wolfsburg. Schweinsteiger moved into the CAM role and set up Mario Gomez for two wonderful goals. While Wolfsburg and Barcelona are worlds apart (Die Wolfe's girls are through to the female Champions League finale against Lyon after beating Arsenal by the way for those who care), considering that Gomez will perhaps be the starting forward, it is something to think about.
Claudio Pizarro recently had a run out as CAM in the Bundesliga. He performed excellently. However, defensively he is not the player Basti is. Also, having a double pivot of Luiz Gustavo and Javier Martinez will allow the rest of the team to move forward more easily simply because, psychologically, they will know that the back four will have an extra player. The advantage of all this is to return Müller to the wing; he is a good CAM but he is a useful defender to have on the wing too. Also, his best exploits have come from the wing this season.
So, you can pretty much guess what lineup I will predict. Arjen Robben has his merits and can run Barcelona ragged. However, he is a great super sub too and he might play that role if Bayern manages to weather out the storm. Xavi promised a storm- there surely will be one. Here is the lineup:
Philipp Lahm- Dante- Jerome Boateng- David Alaba
Javier Martinez- Luiz Gustavo
Thomas Müller- Bastian Schweinsteiger- Franck Ribery
Delving into the History Books
Out of the three other semifinalists, Bayern has a negative record against just one: Borussia Dortmund. Aside from the quarterfinals in 2008-09, Bayern has fared well against Barca. Barca had never beaten Bayern in UEFA competition coming into the first leg of that utterly painful day at the Camp Nou. The second leg, following the 4-0 in the first, finished 1-1 of course. In the 98-99 season, Captain Extraordinaire Stefan Effenberg and co beat Barca twice in the group stages.
In October 98, Bayern won 1-0 courtesy of an Effenberg strike. In November 98, Bayern turned the match on its head. Giovanni opened the scoring with a penalty. Alexander Zickler equalized early in the second half. Hasan Salihamidzic scored a late winner. The two teams met in 2011 in a friendly at the Allianz. Bayern largely played a second team. They defended very well and had chances on the counterattack. The final result was 0-2. However, Bayern could have at least drawn that match.
The Hungarian Viktor Kassai will be refereeing this clash. Kassai refereed another German-Spanish clash just last season. He was the referee in the second leg semifinal clash against Real Madrid. Kassai did not award a penalty to Real in extra time but he also did not award Bayern one towards the end of the first half. Kassai also refereed the World Cup semifinal clash between Germany and Spain. He denied Mesut Özil a penalty as Germany went down 1-0 to Spain.
There is definitely no shame in losing to Barcelona. That does not mean that Bayern is not entitled to have a go at them. Bayern is in many ways the perfect antidote to Barcelona. However, can they nullify an opposition brimming with talent?
We have to wait for Tuesday to find out whether Bayern is indeed prepared to compete with the best of the best.