The biggest event on the footballing calendar is drawing close, and we’re at the last stop on the road to Berlin. With excitement coming close to fever pitch, we at Outside of the Boot decided to get a closer look at the challenges and opportunities each team will face at this stage. Here are the opinions of one of our writers.
What were/are your expectations out of this season’s Champions League campaign?
Arnab Ray: With the way Barcelona generally perform in the Champions League, it would be a bit foolish to not expect them to do well. Their fearsome attack often makes up for a slightly shaky defence. Despite doubts about the ability of their trio to combine, pretty much everyone expected to have a go at Ol’ Big Ears.
Mark Ooi: Whilst it’s always great to win the Champions League, and every season a club of Barca’s stature is expected to win it, I had the expectations of Barca getting to the SFs. At least the SFs, and then anything more would be a bonus. Having quality on paper isn’t enough as luck also plays a key part, such as in the various knockout stage draws.
How confident are you about Barcelona making it to the grand final?
Arnab Ray: They’re going to be up against it, as Bayern will be no easy opposition. Moreover, with Guardiola in the opposite dugout, Barcelona will face off with a foe who can really hurt them, and knows them inside out. Having said that, the Barcelona of Enrique are very different from the Barcelona of Pep, and players like Luis Suarez and Neymar can really wreck the best laid plans. As much as I’d like to see some fireworks though, I think Bayern will prove to be too tough, and make it across.
Mark Ooi: With Bayern’s injuries, especially David Alaba and Arjen Robben missing out for the rest of the season, I am extremely confident of Barca reaching the final. The team has regained its balance and is now much more solid defensively. Pique has played well this season. The forward trio of Neymar-Suarez-Messi is the best forward line I have ever seen – the organic and homogenous nature of their chemistry is sublime. Messi, Suarez and Neymar are world class individuals but, as a trio, their partnership takes the term “world class” to a whole other level.
The weakness in this Barcelona side is the defence, one feels. What, if anything, does Enrique need to do differently here?
Arnab Ray: With the kind of forwards they have, one feels that Barcelona will always score goals. Therefore, they key is to defend well. Bayern were recently beaten by Dortmund, who packed the middle of the pitch, and it worked. Barcelona also bring a lot of men in the middle normally, in an attempt to dominate midfield. I dont believe that Enrique will need to do a lot differently. If he must, he might push Mascherano into midfield. The Argentine is a terrific ball winner, and as he showed during the World Cup, he’s no less on the ball either. He might be the key to stopping players like Alcantara.
Mark Ooi: Luis Enrique and his coaching team, such as Juan Carlos Unzue, have done well, especially strengthening the defence. In set pieces, for example, the team is much improved and have scored a good number of goals from set piece situations.
Enrique should instruct Jordi Alba to be less cavalier with his forward runs. His pace would be crucial to dealing with Bayern players getting in behind the Barca defence. Also, playing with both fullbacks flying forward, especially simultaneously, carries too many risks at this level of football.
Who is the key man when it comes to stopping the Bayern goal scoring machine?
Arnab Ray: As mentioned above, Mascherano, if played in midfield will be important, because he can put the brakes on almost any midfield in the world. In case he isn’t played there, the main man for the Catalans is going to be Gerard Pique. The defender is a moody player, and if he’s off form, Barcelona are in big trouble. A motivated and excited Pique can be a rock at the back though. Enrique will need to ensure that the big man is up for this battle, because the likes of Lewandowski will take some stopping.
Mark Ooi: The whole team will have to be disciplined defensively, but if I had to pinpoint 1 player – Sergio Busquets. Lewandowski frequently drops deep to add to Bayern’s build-up play. Busquets will be key to disrupting Lewandowski and frustrating him by preventing him from getting the ball in the areas and spaces he likes to operate in.
Bayern tend to base their game on their midfield dominance. Is it sensible to drop one of the strikers to accommodate an extra midfielder with that in mind?
Arnab Ray: The key success factor for Barcelona this season has been their forward line. Messi, Neymar, and Suarez have torn teams apart at will, and their interplay seems to be getting better with every game. The goals are coming thick and fast, and they’re the beautiful unstoppable variety as well. Breaking up this combination would be damaging and blunting the sharpest weapon in the Catalan arsenal. This combination is going to be tough to beat, plan or no plan. It doesn’t make sense to change it.
Mark Ooi: Absolutely not. This “MSN” forward trio is the best forward line in the world and will be key to defeating Bayern over the 2 legs. Rather than switching the system to accommodate Bayern’s strengths, Barca should focus on what their own strengths. Keep in mind the need to be more defensively disciplined, but not to the extent of changing the system. Respect Bayern, but don’t fear them.
Finally, if you were handed a Ladbrokes May 2015 promotional code, who would you put your money on?
Arnab Ray: Despite personally leaning towards Barcelona, and despite their incredible forward line, Bayern are going to be my pick. It wont be as easy as last time, and there will be twists and turns, but Bayern seem like the more adaptable side. Guardiola has brought in a lot of variety to their play. Most importantly, they’re very comfortable changing mid game, and being able to adjust their game to exploit the Barcelona weaknesses will be what sees them through.
Mark Ooi: Bayern will be missing key players while Luis Enrique has a full squad to pick from. I believe the 1st leg will end Barca 3-1 Bayern. In the return leg in Munich, I think Bayern will win but it will be 2-1, hence Barca getting to the final by a 1-goal margin aggregate victory.