Barcelona v Bayern Munich
Wednesday May 06, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports 1 & 5
As the architect of a glorious period in Barcelona’s history as a coach, and as a member of the Barca team that saw the Catalan club crowned as European champions for the first time, Pep Guardiola will be welcomed back to the Camp Nou with open arms and warm smiles. Make no mistake though, when the first whistle goes that camaraderie will be forgotten, as this is a chance for Barcelona to re-establish themselves on the European stage.
It was only in January that Guardiola’s former team-mate Luis Enrique found himself under huge pressure, as speculation ran wild about his future as Barca coach, and his relationship with superstar Lionel Messi. Such talk has been consigned to the dustbin of football history, as Enrique’s side have caught fire.
Barcelona lead a gripping title race in Spain by two points from the old enemy Real Madrid, thanks to a run of 17 wins in 19 league games, the latest of which was an 8-0 dismemberment of Cordoba. The Blaugrana will contest the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, and in the Champions League knockout phase they have comfortably disposed of nouveau-riche pretenders Manchester City and PSG.
Although many of the protagonists are the same, this is no longer Guardiola’s Barca. This is not quite the team of impossible angles, of barely perceptible tactical shifts that bamboozle opponents. Enrique’s side are less complex, as they try to make best use of arguably the most thrilling attacking unit in football.
Barca fans are used to seeing Messi produce goals and assists on an industrial scale, but now he has back-up. Neymar has contributed 33 goals to the cause, and the irrepressible Luis Suarez has notched 24. Messi leads the charge with 51, but hasn’t scored any of the team’s last nine Champions League goals, with eight of them coming from Neymar or Suarez.
The hosts have no fresh injury worries, and have won their last eight Champions League games. If ever they were primed to make a statement on the big stage, it’s now.
Bayern have already wrapped up their 25th German title, but Guardiola knows his time in Munich won’t be judged on domestic success. Last season’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Real Madrid was brought about by tactical mistakes that Guardiola has admitted to, and the brilliance of Carlo Ancelotti’s men on the counter-attack.
This season has been about rectifying those mistakes, about making Bayern less vulnerable when they lose the ball high up the pitch. While the Bavarians have improved defensively, with Xabi Alonso a wily presence at the heart of midfield, the peal of the alarm bells hasn’t totally faded.
For all Guardiola’s painstaking work, the wheels have occasionally come off the wagon. Bayern were thrashed 4-1 at Wolfsburg, unable to cope with the intelligence and speed of Kevin De Bruyne. They were mugged 2-0 at home by Borussia Monchengladbach, a team that thrives on soaking up pressure and hitting on the break. In the Champions League quarter-finals they looked sloppy and fragile in a 3-1 first-leg defeat at Porto, only to turn things around with a stunning 6-1 win in Munich.
An accusation levelled against Guardiola’s Bayern is that they are flat-track bullies, who struggle to raise their game for the toughest tests. Their record against the other four teams in Germany’s top five is worrying – they have won just two of eight games, losing three of them.
Bayern are also enduring a crippling sequence of injuries. They visit Catalunya without their best player Arjen Robben, while Holger Badstuber and David Alaba are also sidelined. Franck Ribery has persistent ankle problems, Javi Martinez has only just returned after a nine-month absence, and Robert Lewandowski will have to play in a mask after his jaw and nose were broken by his former Borussia Dortmund team-mate Mitch Langerak.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Bayern still have elite players. Defender Jerome Boateng has improved hugely under Guardiola, former Barca midfielder Thiago is a wonderfully incisive player when in top gear, and it was Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger who formed the core of the Germany team that won the World Cup.
Guardiola knows many of Barcelona’s players inside-out, but even with his extraordinary tactical acumen, I wonder if he can really stop all three of the hosts’ attacking superstars. Suarez is breathtakingly unpredictable, a raging maelstrom of shoulder-drops and surges, and he could be the key to this first leg. Attention will have to be paid to stopping Messi, and that could give Suarez enough space to wreak havoc.
Bayern are nowhere near full-strength, and haven’t delivered a convincing result away to a top-class opponent since they unravelled Roma 7-1 back in October. Barca have beaten Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City and PSG at the Camp Nou since Christmas, and I think they’ll take a first-leg lead.
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
If Bayern have any chance of success, they must surely try to dominate possession and starve Barca’s three musketeers of the ball. Guardiola usually likes to push his players high up the pitch to create pressure and overloads, but he must be wary of being exposed on the counter.
Barca must also be circumspect, as they know Guardiola will have a masterplan, and there is still plenty of firepower in the Bayern ranks. Although I think Barca will edge it, the [2.12] on offer for Under 2.5 Goals looks a shade too big.
Suarez has truly come to life in the Champions League. He scored braces in Manchester and Paris, and he may prove to be the one player that Guardiola’s meticulous planning can’t negate. I’m happy to back him at [2.36] in the To Score market.
Back Barcelona at [1.75]
Back Luis Suarez to score at [2.36]