Every season, Bayern Munich seem to run into at least one major rematch in the UEFA Champions League. Now, for the fourth year in a row, a Spanish giant stands between them and a trip to the Champions League final.
This time it is Barcelona, a team they humiliated 7-0 two years ago en route to the first European treble in German football history. Now Barcelona will get their chance at revenge, as well as a chance to take down the manager who left the club three years ago before taking a job at their German foe six months later.
In this tie, the narratives have flipped from two years ago. Barcelona limped into the Allianz Arena, hoping to get a chance to win another final after an embarrassing display in the semifinals the year before. Bayern now assume that same mantle, an uncanny symmetry that only makes this tie even more unique.
This is the semifinal the world will be watching, and people will not be able to return from the edge of their seats over the next six days until one of these teams is able to deflate the title hopes of the other.
The Match (9th Meeting)
Location: Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli
FC Bayern: 2 W, 0 D, 2 L - 8 YC
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Television and Streaming
US: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports GO, Fox Soccer 2Go
Canada: Sportsnet, Sportsnet World, TVA Sports 2, Sportsnet World Now
UK: Sky Sports 1 & 5 | HD, Sky Go, Sky Go Extra, NOW TV
Germany: Sky Sport 1 | HD, ZDF, Sky Go, SRF zwei, TeleClub Sport Live
FC Bayern: LLWWW
UEFA Champions League: 5 W, 2 D, 1 L
Largest Victory: 4-0 (April 23, 2013)
Largest Defeat: 0-4 (April 8, 2009)
Limited options, hobbled players, and the toughest opponent in the world. This is where players earn their accolades, where managers earn their stripes, and where clubs earn their legitimacy. The task Guardiola has to undertake is one no manager envies, and no one is putting more pressure on him than he is himself.
No question is more obvious than the one Bayern has: is Robert Lewandowski, now the masked crusader, ready to play after facial fractures and his concussion? The team has clearly performed better with the striker in the side, but many pundits are raising the ethical questions on whether or not he should play. He trained on Monday wearing his face protector, an indicator he could be ready to suit up during Bayern's trip to Barcelona.
Whether or not Lewandowski plays will not take away from the central-focused attack Bayern will likely deploy in the match. Without his star wingers to lean on, Guardiola will hope to overwhelm the sturdy triangle Barcelona has in defense. Thomas Müller and Thiago Alcantara will help drill into that bedrock, and Müller will certainly try to physically dominate Barcelona in the middle as he did two years ago.
The best way for Guardiola to contain the formidable front of Barcelona is to stick with a traditional four man defense. Even if he uses a midfielder like Xabi Alonso, Philipp Lahm, or Bastian Schweinsteiger at the tip of a diamond setup, the gaffer will need four players to outnumber Barcelona in attack. Whoever plays in midfield will have to do what they can to close down the opposing midfielders to cut off the Blaugrana midfield at the point of attack.
Bayern will come in as the underdogs for the first time in a long time, a moniker which could work to their advantage if they play their cards right.
Projected Lineup (4-3-1-2)
Robert Lewandowski - Thomas Müller
Bastian Schweinsteiger - Xabi Alonso - Philipp Lahm
Juan Bernat - Jérôme Boateng - Mehdi Benatia - Rafinha
Bench: Pepe Reina, Dante, Javi Martínez, Gianluca Gaudino, Mario Götze, Mitchell Weiser, Claudio Pizarro
Out/Suspended: David Alaba (knee), Holger Badstuber (thigh), Franck Ribéry (ankle), Arjen Robben (calf), Sebastian Rode (glut), Tom Starke (ankle)
If Barcelona were looking for their form leading up to this semifinal, they did not ave to search very hard to find it. Their recent run of fixtures included a few lower-to-mid-table sides, but one should never scoff at a 20-0 goal margin over a five-match period.
Some of the variables of Barcelona's formula of success are pretty self-explanatory. While others booed and hissed at Luis Enrique's rotation techniques, the first-year manager has a deep squad at his disposal, his team fit and in form from head-to-toe. He also deserves credit for the breakouts of Marc Bartra and Rafinha Alcantara, two players he will now have a hard time leaving out of the squad.
Luis Enrique's setup does not need to be tinkered with much either. Perhaps the bigger, more robust Marc Bartra is the better option than the intelligent, pick-pocketing Javier Mascherano, but either will be able to hold their own against the German champions. Marc-Andre ter Stegen will have the familiarity advantage with Bayern coming to town, but Luis Enrique has relied upon him in cup matches nonetheless. Regardless of who plays, Luis Enrique's foundation will stay the same, and how well they withstand the quakes from Bayern will be a major factor in the match.
People have already doled out their plaudits of MSN - Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar - so the only thing a naive outsider needs to know is their movement and interplay is like poetry. With how deep Messi has dropped this season, the attack will start and end with those three, the others doing what they can to make sure MSN has the opportunities to strut their stuff.
Barcelona have showcased powerful displays of football already this season, and another big performance could ensure a trip to Berlin.
Projected Lineup (4-3-3)
Neymar - Luis Suarez - Lionel Messi
Andres Iniesta - Sergio Busquets - Ivan Rakitic
Jordi Alba - Marc Bartra - Gerard Pique - Dani Alves
Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Bench: Claudio Bravo, Adriano, Javier Mascherano, Martin Montoya, Xavi Hernandez, Rafinha Alcantara, Pedro Rodriguez
Out/Suspended: Jeremy Mathieu (ankle)
Bayern had success in their last visit to the Camp Nou, but they are surely running into a buzz-saw in this first leg. The Bavarians will have a long trip if they are unable to impose themselves on the match, especially if they cannot divert the supply lines away from Barcelona's front. Pep Guardiola does not have a good record in away first leg matches, setting up an uncomfortable homecoming for the former Barcelona manager.