There may be no Clásico -- at least not yet -- but the Champions League semifinals have thrown up two intriguing matchups. The headline from Friday’s draw is a first return for Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola to the club he coached to two Champions League titles in three seasons with perhaps the greatest team in history, Barcelona.
The storylines do not end there. Much of the Barcelona squad will surely have revenge on their minds for the mauling they took from Bayern Munich at the same stage of the competition two years ago. While the other contest appears more of a mismatch, Juventus have experience in upsetting the odds against Real Madrid in the semifinals. In their last appearance in the final four 12 years ago, the Italian giants triumphed 4-3 on aggregate to reach the final.
Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich (first leg: May 6 at the Camp Nou, second leg: May 12 at the Allianz Arena)
While a two-legged Clásico would have drawn the world’s attention like nothing else, a tussle between Barcelona and Bayern Munich presents surely the most intriguing of the potential matchups. Guardiola will be returning to the club with which he shares such a close bond, emotionally and philosophically. With him he will bring a Bayern Munich side featuring a blend of the possession-based philosophy that led Barcelona to Champions League titles in 2009 and 2011, and the more physical elements that helped Bayern destroy Barcelona en route to the trophy in 2013.
Perhaps Bayern were too rigid in the possession game in going out to Real Madrid last season, but their quarterfinal second leg blasting of Porto showed that Guardiola is now more pragmatic and flexible. Bayern will be boosted, too, for the semifinals by the likely return of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Up against them will be the side that currently looks the most dangerous in Europe. Barcelona’s attack is unmatched anywhere in the world, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar all playing at the top of their games individually and collectively. Simply stopping them will be a tough ask for any team, let alone a Bayern defense that can be vulnerable, particularly on the break. Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona are now far less beholden to the short-passing play than under Guardiola, and their counter attacking can be a key weapon. Merely witnessing who controls the possession in the two matches will be fascinating.
Ultimately, though, while Enrique has increasingly impressed as the season has gone one, it is Guardiola who appears to have the greater mastery over his players and the situation at hand. That could, perhaps, be just enough to get the better of Barcelona’s vaunted attacking trio.
Prediction: Bayern Munich
Real Madrid vs. Juventus (first leg: May 5 at the Juventus Stadium, second leg: May 13 at the Bernabeu)
Real Madrid overcame a huge hurdle in the quarterfinals to get past an Atlético Madrid side that had gone undefeated in the sides’ last seven matchups. After the jubilation of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández's late goal at the Bernabeu, there will surely be a temptation to breathe a sigh of relief, especially after receiving the semifinal opponent that they Barcelona and Bayern Munich would surely have chosen if given the option.
There is certainly plenty of reason for confidence. In terms of recent European pedigree there is no comparison. While Juventus are in their first semifinal since 2003, Real Madrid are in the last four for the fifth consecutive season. And Juventus are operating in a different financial sphere than Real Madrid, which has obliterated the transfer record to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in recent seasons and sign bench players for more than Juventus can afford to splurge on a star man.
But there is also enough to suggest than any complacency would be misplaced. Under Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus have been extremely resilient. The Italian champions and runaway Serie A leaders have conceded just five goals in their 10 Champions League fixtures this season, and held Monaco scoreless through both legs of a tightly matched quarterfinal. Up front they also have two players who can do Madrid damage in Carlos Tevez and a man with a point to prove, former Bernabeu striker Alvaro Morata.
The semifinal could be defined, though, as much by players who won’t be on the pitch as those who are. Real Madrid will be missing key midfield influence Luka Modric, while Juventus could be without their potential game-changing midfielder Paul Pogba. If Juventus are without the French star, and with a defense that can be susceptible to pace, Madrid and Ronaldo should make it through. However, it is unlikely to be straightforward.
Prediction: Real Madrid