Pep Guardiola, the man who won fourteen titles in four incredible seasons at Barça, returns to Camp Nou tomorrow for the first time as an opposing team coach. It could hardly be a bigger occasion with Luis Enrique’s in-form Barça facing Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final (Wednesday 8.45 pm). Barça’s desire to gain revenge for the 0-7 humilliation against the Germans at the same stage of the competition two years ago adds extra spice to the tie as if any more were needed.
With this year’s participation Barça can boast a remarkable seven Champions League semi-finals in the last eight seasons. An impressive record indeed but a look at the six previous semi-final ties clearly suggests this is not Barça’s favourite stage of the competition. We have only won two of the six ties, against Chelsea in 2009 and Real Madrid in 2011, and we didn’t play our best football on either of those occasions. Iniesta’s golazo saved us in 2009 while the Madrid semi-final was an awful spectacle for the neutral and, besides Messi’s extraordinary goal at the Bernabéu, was more memorable for Mourinho’s outburst over Pepe’s red card. Of the 12 semi-final games we have only won two, 0-2 at the Bernabéu and the 1-0 against Inter’s ten men in 2010 which wasn’t enough after Inter’s 3-1 win in the first leg. The six semis at Camp Nou have all been a let-down in some way, 0-0 with Man Utd in 2008, another goalless draw with Chelsea the year after, the Inter game, a forgettable 1-1 draw with Madrid in 2011, the tragic 2-2 with Chelsea in 2012 and finally the embarrassing 0-3 drubbing from Bayern in 2013.
Bayern were in splendid form and on their way to a treble two years ago, while in contrast Barça were without Busquets, Mascherano, Alba, Puyol, Abidal and Messi for the Germans’ win at Camp Nou. This time round Barça are looking in excellent condition and, except for Jeremy Mathieu who has been ruled out with an Achilles injury, Luis Enrique has a full squad available. Bayern, on the other hand, will have to form a team without Alaba, Badstuber, Robben and Ribery. Robert Lewandowski will play with a face mask after fracturing his nose last week while Javi Martinez is available again but unlikely to start after his eight-month absence.
Having sewn up the Bundesliga nine days ago, Bayern have had a full week to prepare for tomorrow’s game since losing on penalties to Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup semi-final last Tuesday. German sources suggest Bayern will play an XI of Neuer, Rafinha, Boateng, Benatia, Bernat, Lahm, Alonso, Schweinsteiger, Thiago, Muller and Lewandowski, though with Guardiola there could always be a surprise. Even if this is his starting line-up, the versatility of Rafinha, Lahm or Thiago make it impossible to know if the Bayern coach will go with a 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 5-3-2 or 3-4-1-2 though the final option looks a good bet with Lahm and Bernat playing as wing-backs to add numbers to the German midfield. Rafinha, Boateng and Benatia would form a defence of three with Alonso and Schweinsteiger as a double midfield pivot. This would leave Thiago as the link to forwards Muller and Lewandowski.
There are unlikely to be any surprises in Luis Enrique’s XI. Jordi Alba has recovered from a knock so unless Lucho is thinking to give Rafinha a start on his brother Thiago’s return to Camp Nou, Barça will probably start with Ter Stegen in goal, a back four of Alves, Piqué, Mascherano and Alba, a midfield three of Busquets, Rakitic and Iniesta, with the irrepressible trio of Messi, Suárez and Neymar up front.
Barça’s fantastic recent form and Bayern’s problems with injury make Barça the bookmakers’ favourite to win the tie and also to win the competition. This is cetainly recognition of Barça’s excellent second half to the season as Bayern and Real Madrid were favourites at the start of the year.
Everything is looking in place for Barça to end the season with silverware but there are no certainties in football and we all know anything can happen in the next few weeks. Now, it is crunch time, do-or-die time. Will we perform and get the breaks? If you are not excited by tomorrow’s game you should probably visit a doctor, just to make sure you are still alive.
Barça: Ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar.
Bayern: Neuer; Rafinha, Boateng, Benatia; Lahm, Alonso, Schweinsteiger, Bernat; Thiago; Muller, Lewandowski.
My bet: correct score – Barça 3 Bayern 1 (current odds: 13.00). The best odds for soccer betting are at William Hill.
Date: Wednesday 6 May 2015. Kick-off 8.45 pm local time.