When the draw for the Champions League semi-finals was made last Friday it became pretty obvious to all concerned that to complete a second treble in three years Bayern Munich would have to overcome not just one but potentially two Spanish heavyweights.
If you are a manager of one of the three European uberclubs namely Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich then just romping to the league title or the domestic cup does not suffice. The Presidents, Directors and the fans are satisfied only if you win the whole lot, such is the pressure that faces the incumbent manager in these institutions.
While a manager of the aforementioned Spanish clubs would have to deal with additional politics commonplace in Madrid and Catalonia he does have the slight consolation in the fact that there is another superclub competing in the same league. But with Bayern in the current scenario there are no excuses, one just has to win on all fronts.
Welcome to the world of Pep Guardiola, the charismatic Catalan who is still being judged in all quarters despite winning the domestic double in his first season incharge of the Bavarian giants and looking odds on favourite to atleast repeat the same this year. But Pep knows that his initial years with Bayern will only be deemed a success if he helps land a sechste European crown. And he knows it will not be easy as in his way stand two other clubs chasing the same holy grail.
Part One a Barcelona
This particular match up has several different angles to it. Firstly, it is the first time that these clubs are meeting since Jupp Heynckesa s Bayern side dismantled Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate two years back. Hence there is a feeling that the Catalans are looking for revenge against the side which symbolically ended the tiki-taka football of the Guardiola years. Secondly, it pits two coaches against one another in Luis Enrique and Guardiola who not only played together but also learnt the art of management together.
Enrique vs Guardiola will act as a subplot in this mouthwatering tie
But most importantly it will pit a manager against several players whom he trained to become not only Europea s finest but also the Worlda s finest. It can be safely said that the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, et al. reached the zenith of their careers under the tutelage of Guardiola. And they did so playing a brand of football which captured the hearts and minds of all who love the beautiful game.
But the Barcelona of today are vastly different from the one Pep left behind. They rely more on possession through the wide areas rather than the middle with Neymar and Messi stretching opposition defences and Luis Suarez running through the middle. Infact it is Bayern who most resemble the Barcelona of 3 years ago with their emphasis on possession and playing through those neat little triangles in midfield.
This tie of extreme fine margins will be decided in how Barcelona cope against a side who will enjoy more possession of the ball, something they are not used to. It will also be decided on how Bayerna s backline cope against probably the best strike force in world football today. Guardiola will also have to decide whether to keep playing Philipp Lahm in midfield or put him at right/left back against Neymar/Messi. He will also have to decide between starting between the 2 false numbers 9a s in Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze and crowding the middle of the park or playing Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery and stretching the Barcelona defence.
All in all this looks like a matchup which will be decided as much on the field as it will be by the decisions taken by the homecoming Catalan.
Part Two a Real Madrid
If Bayern get past the Blaugrana then most probably they will be lining up against the other heavyweight from the Spanish division in Real Madrid. Los Blancos would be expected to get past Juventus despite the lattera s defensive solidity.
This potential game will be interesting because both the sides on paper atleast will be allowed to play the game of their choice. Bayern can play possession football and Real can play on the counter and use the speed and thrust of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
Ramos was the difference when Real last faced Bayern
During his Barcelona days Guardiola enjoyed the kind of supremacy over Real that every Catalan could only dream of but similar tactics did not yield the same result last year. Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti got the better of the Bayern trainer by exploiting the lack of machismo in Bayerna s defence with Sergio Ramos twice scoring headers following precise deliveries from set pieces.
Ancelotti will again look at set pieces to hit at the Bavarian giants and it remains to be seen whether Bayern have improved enough defensively to stop this approach.
But possibly the most important factor going into these games will be how sharp the Bavarians are. Last season, they had sown up the title in March and though it has not been so comfortable this season but one always knew that the trophy would stay in Munich. Pep will now have to ensure that his players do not reduce their intensity even in the dead rubbers domestically because as they found out last season it is not so easy to turn on the switch come the big matches.
So it can be said that over the next month Guardiola will have to deal with a club where he is idolised, potentially take on a club which ruined his first year in Germany and keep the intensity of his side high as they canter to another domestic title.
Who said that managing an uberclub is easy but maybe that is why only a handful of men can do it. Josep Guardiola certainly falls in that category but he would want more than just recognition. He would like to be adored like the way he is in Catalonia but for that he would have to pass the Spanish inquisition.