Pep Guardiola will return to the Camp Nou for the first time as an opposition coach on Wednesday when his Bayern Munich side faces the ominous task of halting a Barcelona team in devastating form. It was three years ago that an emotionally drained Guardiola walked away from a club whose ethos he embodied as a player and perfected as a coach to guide them to their greatest ever era of success. But now it is the Catalan who stands in the way of Barcelona’s efforts to win a first Champions League crown since Guardiola’s brilliant side won two European Cups in three years between 2008 and 2011.
The bad news for Guardiola is that Barcelona are playing at a higher level than at any point since his departure into a year-long sabbatical in New York. Barcelona had gone through a tumultuous two years, with Tito Vilanova’s reign ending in tragic circumstances and Tata Martino never able to show he was anything other than a stop-gap.
Current coach Luis Enrique has had his problems, too, not least when unwisely coming into conflict with the club’s greatest ever player, Lionel Messi. But, blessed with the greatest front line in the world today, Barcelona are now steamrolling all before them. They have won their last two matches by a combined score of 14-0, with Saturday’s 8-0 win over Cordoba almost routine in its delivery. A 6-0 victory against Getafe four days earlier had taken the breath away, particularly in a first half in which Barcelona scored five times and Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez showed all their individual and collective brilliance. The trio’s goals in that encounter took their combined tally past the 100 mark. That total now stands at 108, despite Suárez missing the first two months of the season and taking time to find his place in what has long been Messi’s team.
Those struggles seem a long time ago now. It is hard to think of a front three through history that have possessed so much ability while also being so complimentary. Crucially all three, who would be the absolute focal point of almost any other team in the world, have modified their individual roles to maximize the effectiveness of the team.
It means there is much to savor at the Camp Nou, despite the fact that, with a transfer ban still in place and with presidential elections upcoming this summer, the future direction of the club remains uncertain. But the two years of failings off the pitch following Guardiola’s exit could yet come back to haunt them. If Bayern Munich are to prevail in a most eagerly anticipated semifinal, then it is likely that Thiago Alcântara, the Barcelona pupil who got away, will play an influential part.
Son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, Thiago joined Barcelona at the age of 14 and was widely regarded as the heir apparent to Xavi. But Guardiola, Xavi’s predecessor as the fulcrum of Barcelona’s possession-centric philosophy, was able to capitalize on the Catalans’ bumbling. Upon arriving at Bayern, Guardiola made it clear to his bosses that his wishes in the transfer market that first summer were simple: “Thiago or nothing.”
Thanks to Barcelona failing to get rid of a release clause or convince him that he would get the first-team role needed to continue his development, Thiago flew the coop. After a promising start, the Spain international’s first season was curtailed by a serious knee injury that resurfaced just days into his attempted comeback last October. But since finally returning to the side he has been superb. In his second start back, he scored a vital away goal in the first leg of Bayern’s quarterfinal with Porto, and in the return leg he found the net again and was superb as the Bavarians stormed to a 6-1 victory.
Having missed the demolition by Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League semifinals, Bayern will be hoping that Thiago’s presence can make the difference this time -- especially with their other attacking options so depleted. At the Camp Nou Bayern will be without the two players upon which their attack has been centered around for so long, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, while striker Robert Lewandowski is a major doubt after breaking his jaw and his nose against Borussia Dortmund last week.
Bayern were defeated in that DFB-Pokal semifinal, as they were against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. It was telling, though, that Thiago was among several players left out of the lineup at the BayArena who are likely to return on Wednesday. With the Bundesliga title wrapped up, Guardiola’s focus is on his return to Camp Nou.
Prediction: There will be no surprise in how a Barcelona team based around its three star forwards will approach the game. The intrigue lies in how Guardiola will try to counter them. Whether with three at the back or four, he could well opt to pack his midfield and try to ensure that a team lacking key attacking talent remains in the tie going back to the Allianz Arena. Going forward they will rely on the creativity and dynamism of Thiago as well as getting the likes of Juan Bernat and Philipp Lahm into attacking positions down the flanks. But their big task will be to stop the influence of Messi, particularly his recent penchant for cutting inside and playing devastating passes over the top to Neymar and Suárez. Bayern are often vulnerable to runs in behind and that could be enough to give Barcelona the advantage after what should be an engrossing first leg.
Predicted score: Barcelona 2-1 Bayern Munich
Barcelona: Luis Enrique is set to name the same XI that beat Cordoba on Saturday, with Jordi Alba expected to shake off a slight niggle.
Bayern Munich: Robben, Ribery and David Alaba all remain sideline, but Javi Martínez could feature having made his return from serious injury at the weekend.