Bayern are missing a few first team players, but their strength in depth should allow them to replace quality with quality. Jupp Heynckes is without the injured Toni Kroos, meaning Thomas Muller will continue in the central role and Arjen Robben will play on the right wing, while in attack Mario Gomez will replace the suspended Mario Mandzukic.
Tito Vilanova has more troubling absentees. Injuries to Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano and a suspension for Adriano deprive Barcelona of three senior centre backs, meaning either young Marc Bartra will deputise or Eric Abidal will make only his second start of the season after returning from injury. Meanwhile Lionel Messi is likely to be risked despite not being fully fit.
With Bayern on course for a record points haul in the Bundesliga and a possible treble of German League and Cup to go with the Champions League, Barcelona are aware that they enter a European tie as underdogs for the first time in four years.
Pressure In Midfield
As in most games, the key tactical battle will be in midfield. Both sides are accustomed to pressing, and yet the respective depths of their midfields make this an awkward contest.
At the top of Bayern’s triangle, Muller will find himself directly competing with Barcelona’s holding midfielder Sergio Busquets in what will be the only straightforward match-up (to be discussed later). This leaves Bayern’s deep pairing of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger against Barcelona’s central partnership of Xavi and Andres Iniesta. In theory these pairings would directly engage each other – Schweinsteiger would press Xavi, whilst Martinez would track Iniesta. Yet this really goes against each players’ role, as in reality the two pairing want to position themselves 10 yards apart.
Heynckes uses Martinez and Schweinsteiger in a mobile screen, similar to the way Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira sit deep for Real Madrid. Their purpose is to occupy space between the lines – imperative against Barcelona – and withdraw from the midfield contest to find time to dictate play. Should Bayern’s pairing be drawn upfield in pursuit of Xavi and Iniesta, they would leave space for Messi to drop into and lose time on the ball when in possession.
Barcelona have the same problem. Xavi and Iniesta are both energetic without the ball, yet with Muller, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben all looking to receive the ball in advanced central areas, Vilanova will be reluctant to cede space in midfield.
All four players are excellent in their roles – they all have a fine appreciation of space, are committed in defence and capable of incisive passes when in possession. The contest between these four should be fascinating.
Thomas Muller vs Sergio Busquets
Muller’s inclusion in place of Kroos makes his contest with Busquets intriguing. Kroos is more willing to compete in midfield, and had he played would be likely to energetically press Busquets when the Spaniard is in possession, but also occasionally drop deeper to engage Xavi and Iniesta. Ultimately Kroos would have stayed goal-side of Busquets in an attempt to pin Barcelona’s pivot in his own half.
Muller is likely to play the role differently, having been converted from a forward to play an advanced midfield role. His positioning is generally far more advanced than Kroos, although he can still be relied on without the ball. Nevertheless Muller may decide not to always stay goal-side of Busquets, especially when he moves forward into midfield. This would offer Bayern the option of playing 2vs2 in attack and force Barcelona’s central defenders to mark an opponent. Not only does this give Bayern the option to play directly on the break, but also the chance to isolate Bartra (or Abidal) should they perceive him to be a weak link.
Part of the success of Jordi Alba and, particularly, Daniel Alves marauding forward from full back has been the scarcity of quality wide players that they have been faced with in the past few seasons. Many have tried to attack them, and even stay upfield when they go forward to offer a target on the break, but more often than not the risk of allowing Alba and Alves to advance untracked is not adequately offset by the threat of the wide attackers themselves.
Ribery and Robben should be different. Both will be reluctant to track the opposing full backs, so will often find themselves loitering upfield in space. Yet the risk of allowing Alves and Alba space in attack may be one Bayern are willing to take, as the option of their wingers running at Barcelona’s defence on the break is surely one to pursue, if only on occasion.
It’s difficult not to discuss Messi, especially after the Paris Saint-Germain tie revealed just how important he was to this Barcelona side (even if that may have already been evident). Messi is not fully fit, but it is unlikely that he is in a worse physical state than when he came off the bench to rescue his side in the last round and it seems inconceivable that he won’t be risked. Cesc Fabregas is a fine player, and a capable replacement, but with Messi Barcelona lose more than just their best player – they lose the focal point of what can occasionally be a directionless system.
To list what Messi can add seems frivolous. Apart from his goals, his dribbling at pace will threaten the speed (or lack thereof) of Daniel van Buyten, his deep positioning will add to the midfield battle – not to mention his favoured right channel will test the young David Alaba – and his energetic pressing will cause Martinez and Schweinsteiger problems. With him this is an extremely even contest between a team of constant quality against one designed around an individual’s genius. Without him it is reasonable to suggest Bayern would be heavy favourites.
Competing with Barcelona is not the mystery it once was. Whereas just a couple of seasons ago every other side in Europe would develop a gameplan for Barcelona alone, now teams rightly feel they can stand toe-to-toe with them.
Whatever the result of this tie, two things may happen that could irreversibly shatter Barcelona’s mystique: Bayern could dominate possession, and Barcelona may adapt their system for an opponent. That should say everything about the German champions’ chances.