The semifinals of the Champions League will pit two of the best teams in the world against each other in a showcase full of excitement and Narrative. Pep Guardiola is returning to the club that raised him, and he will have to find a way to vanquish the team he wont two Champions League titles with.
Many of these players on Bayern Munich and Barcelona will face off for the second time, but this is not the same Barcelona from their previous bout. Lionel Messi has returned to full health, and now has new mates he can goof around with on the pitch. The transfer restrictions have forced Barcelona to load up on positional depth, but that curse has turned into a blessing with an eventful three-front campaign.
With injuries up the wazoo, Guardiola has a tough task facing him when constructing the formula to defeat his former family. What is he up against? Here is a summary of the well-rounded team Barcelona is.
In order to reestablish itself as a dominant Spanish side, Barcelona not so much reinvented itself, but rather updated their image. It is the same methodical tiki-taka team the world has come to know and love, but there new elements to their play that adds more dimensions to their look. Luis Enrique has rotated his squad the entire season, occasionally to a fault, to the point where Barcelona are arguably the deepest team remaining in Europe. They score goals on a dime, and look like they are having a great time.
In terms of personnel, the defense has not changed all that much. The biggest piece they added in their last transfer window for a while was Jérémy Mathieu, a versatile defender mediocre with his feat but bonafide in closing the ball down. More significantly is the development of Marc Bartra, out matched two years ago but now pushing Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for a spot in the side.
The root of their defense is the triangle of Pique, Mascherano, and holding midfielder Sergio Busquets, a furnace where the rest of the flame flows. Barcelona's quick midfielders are able to move up and down the pitch in the framework Luis Enrique has set them up in. The shape is the root of their defensive success this season, often outnumbering their opponents in all over the field. The one drawback is their propensity to chase the ball, occasionally leaving them open to teams who can efficiently switch the play.
As in defense, similar faces make up the Barcelona midfield, and they play with a similar style. The one major change is Ivan Rakitić's supplementation of Xavi Hernández, but Barcelona has not skipped a beat with the switch. Rakitić and Rafinha Alcantara (the brother of Bayern midfielder Thiago Alcantara) have benefited greatly from Luis Enrique's rotation, both getting the playing time to establish their high form going into the critical parts of the season.
Rakitić and Andres Iniesta are the ones responsible for building up the play and keeping possession. The numerous support on all sides causes opposition to rarely overwhelm the two, especially with the opposing defense having their hands full with Barcelona's fantastic forwards. A new wrinkle is how much deeper Messi is dropping from his forward position, facilitating the play much more now that his fitness issues are behind him. Add Jordi Alba and Dani Alves into the mix on the flanks and they can attack you in many different ways.
Who knew one of the best attacking teams in football history could become even better? Everyone knows the name of their triumvirate up front, instilling fear throughout all of Europe under the nickname MSN. It took them a little to get to know each other, Luis Enrique not defining their roles very well at the beginning of the season. Now they all share the same brain, gliding in unison like a series of tidal waves converging on the goal line.
The tiki-taka style is still there from the glory days of Guardiola, but now they have new dimensions to their attack. Luis Suarez's ability to win the ball in the air allows them to stretch the play vertically more than before. The runs Suarez and Neymar make are precise, often opening up lanes for others. Messi picks them out with pinpoint accuracy, so effective it makes Hawkeye look like a preteen with a peashooter. It doesn't help that Messi and Suarez do-si-do, or that all of them, along with Pedro, can take on several defenders and create chances by themselves. The three of them are arguably in the form of their lives, and perhaps no team on the world can contain them.
Lionel Messi – His fall from grace the prior two seasons, as ludicrous as his expectations are, allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to usurp the "world's best player" mantle from him. Now the fitness problems of yesteryear are firmly behind him, and he is thriving in arguably the best situation he has ever played in. The burden of the attack is a little lighter on his shoulders, to the point he can drop a tad deeper to help Barcelona in different ways. Messi has welcomed Suarez into the forward spot as the two accompany Neymar in the highest profile game of Ring Around the Rosie. There is no question about it now: he is back as the best player in the world.
Andres Iniesta – As one would expect from a 30-year-old, Iniesta is not the player he once was. He cannot take command of matches like he used to, but fortunately for him, he has not been required to. He is in a different role now in Barcelona's side, deferring more to the players around him. His diminished responsibility means he is not the one to make the final pass anymore, but that has not hampered Barcelona's success in the slightest. To say he is overrated is definitely harsh, but his name does not carry as much cache as it once did.
Jérémy Mathieu – Clubs did not dive after the former Valencia defender as much as they probably should have, and that worked to Barcelona's benefit. In the squad, he is more of a depth piece, but he is a solid constant for Luis Enrique who does what he is told. It is no coincidence that Barcelona's defensive record improved drastically upon his arrival, and while his future may not be a fullback, he is a physical presence many teams do not account for.
How Barcelona beats Bayern
With Guardiola on the other touch line, Luis Enrique is going to have a hard time winning the battle in midfield. However, his players can ensure that victory if they are able to outnumber Bayern like they did to Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round. The forwards can bait the Bayern defense forward, and once they sneak in behind, the German giants will flounder with the pace and power of MSN.
How Bayern beats Barcelona
The midfield is the battleground where the match will be won or lost. Guardiola has to come up with a way of shutting down the supply lines to the Barcelona forwards, and Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger will be the key to executing his plan. Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski may not be as fancy as their opponents, but they can use their strength to fight for their positions and hold up the ball. If Bayern can find an effective way to switch the play, they can find a way to put goals in the back of the net no matter who plays.