FC Barcelona kick-start their pre-season campaign tomorrow, as they prepare to travel to Germany to face Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the 2013 Uli Hoeness Cup. Despite appointing Gerardo Martino as their new coach this morning, Barcelona travel to the Allianz Arena without a permanent coach, and will therefore be led by Jordi Roura and Rubi – in what may be their last match with the club.
After the unfortunate resignation of head coach Tito Vilanova, the players were in no fit state to travel to Poland on Saturday, where they would have otherwise started their pre-season against Lechia Gdansk (who last night kicked off their season with a 2-2 draw at home to Podbeskidzie). And as that match will now be played in a week’s time on the 30th, Barça now face the unenviable task of squaring off against the reigning European Champions in their first friendly match of 2013/14.
Worryingly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Barcelona who will not only be in inferior condition to their Bavarian hosts, but will also be without a raft of first-team players who are yet to return to the club after their service at the 2013 Confederations Cup. That means there will be no Xavi, no Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, or even Neymar, or Dani Alves – so Lionel Messi and possibly Alexis Sánchez aside, Barça will be without their entire first-choice starting XI, particularly as club captain Carles Puyol continues to miss out through injury.
So, if Barcelona lost by four goals on their last trip to the Allianz Arena with their first-choice XI, what on earth are we in store for tomorrow, when a second-string team attempts to go toe-to-toe with a full-strength Bayern Munich?
If the recent matches between the two sides are anything to go by, it’s going to be a busy night for Jose Manuel Pinto in the Barcelona goal. Starting between the sticks in the absence of Victor Valdés, Pinto enters this pre-season knowing that this may well be his last year with the club, as Barcelona reportedly have deals with both Pepe Reina and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. Certainly, if those two do end up joining the club, there doesn’t appear to be much room for a 38 year-old veteran like Pinto – regardless of his character and popularity in the dressing-room. Yet, there’s a feeling that with Pinto, age is just a number.
Against Malaga last season for instance, Pinto rolled back the years to make a string of incredible saves; it didn’t matter that he was in the twilight of his career, he still had the ability to make a difference, just as he did all those seasons ago with Celta Vigo. If he is on his game tomorrow, maybe Barcelona will stand a chance after all.
After all, the defense doesn’t look that bad. European Under-21 champion Martin Montoya will start at right-back, with fellow European Under-21 champion Marc Bartra alongside him on the right-hand side of defense. Former Argentina captain Javier Mascherano will partner the talented Catalan in the heart of defense, while one of last season’s surprise packages Adriano will complete the back-line, starting at left-back. Sure, it could be better, but as far as four-man defenses go, this is pretty respectable.
With a good blend of talent, experience and technique, this defense would likely be good enough against the vast majority of La Liga teams – and some may even argue that this defense is likely to be a little more “stable” than Barça’s regular back-line.
Rather surprisingly, the real issue for Jordi Roura as he prepares to take one of his former colleagues, Pep Guardiola, is the midfield. Thanks to the Confederations Cup, Barcelona will be without their four best midfielders, and while we’re on the subject of “rankings”, the fifth best midfielder has recently left the club to join tomorrow’s opposition. Alex Song at pivote, with Jonathan dos Santos and Sergi Roberto as interiors; it’s a respectable midfield, but compare that to Bayern Munich’s midfield talent (coupled with their manager) and well, it’s looking grim.
Signed for €19 million last summer, Alex Song is the fifth most-expensive signing of the Sandro Rosell reign, but has arguably been the worst of the bunch. It’s not that he’s a bad player – far from it – but he just represents poor value. Just as expectation of Alexis Sánchez, Cesc Fàbregas and now Neymar was and will be dictated by their respective transfer fees, I think we have a right to expect more from Alex Song given the inflated fee we paid for his signature. With a new manager to impress, and a proverbial clean slate, Alex Song has a chance to finally demonstrate why it was that he set us back roughly €20 million, starting with a good performance tomorrow against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern midfield.
Jonathan dos Santos and Sergi Roberto on the other hand didn’t cost the club a dime, and as a result, our expectations are dramatically different. Gauging “public” opinion of Roberto in the aftermath of Thiago’s transfer to Bayern Munich, one of very own editors Luis Mazariegos asked whether there was too much, or too little pressure on young Sergi Roberto; and the general consensus was that Sergi will make an excellent squad member. It seems that Culés know that a player of his experience is not going to “dominate” against a team like Bayern – with tomorrow being no exception. JDS is expected to leave on loan this summer, and so, unlike Alex Song, this match is a “bonus” for the two talented midfielders. There’s no pressure, no expectations; just a chance to catch the eye. Nothing to lose, everything to gain; let’s see whether they’ll surprise us.
On the flip side, such an inexperienced midfield is likely to not only influence whether or not Barça can control possession, but it’s also likely to impact on our offensive capabilities as well. Without Xavi, without Busquets and without Iniesta, the onus is going to be on Lionel Messi to drop a little deeper than even he is used to, in an attempt to provide that spark the Barça midfield desperately needs in each match. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the deeper Messi drops, the further away from goal he gets, and Pep Guardiola of all people will know that the further Messi is from goal, the less likely he is to truly impact (decide?) the game.
Each step closer to the half-way line is also likely to be one step closer to what could and perhaps should be a compact Bayern midfield. Granted, they are missing Javi Martinez, but Guardiola may still opt for a 4-2-3-1, or at least a double-pivot of some sort. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos? Luiz Gustavo and Thiago? With Guardiola, anything is possible – and regardless of which of these two options is more probable, Messi must be relishing tomorrow’s match.
While he started the first-leg at the Allianz Arena, Messi was far from 100%, and as a result, he struggled to exert any sort of influence on the game. Sure, we can praise Schweinsteiger and Martinez for their efforts, but even against a fatigued Barcelona attack, the pairing still committed an incredible nine fouls between them – that’s just one less than the entire Barcelona team. With a lot more fitness, who knows what Messi could do against a Martinez-less Bayern midfield?
With a couple of athletic (read: quick) partners in Alexis Sánchez and Cristian Tello, Messi may feel as though he has better support this time round, or at least a supporting cast that is a little more likely to trouble the Bayern defense. And if the Bayern defense has to keep an eye on both Tello and Sánchez, that’s one, or perhaps more accurately, two less “problems” that Messi will have to deal with.
Similarly, a fully fit Messi is also good news for Cristian Tello, and more pertinently Alexis Sánchez, who also struggled to make an impact in that UEFA Champions League semi-final clash with the Bundesliga champions. But, what may be more promising for the two wingers is Barcelona’s midfield – as Barça’s “greatest” weakness could also be one of their greatest strengths.
While it wouldn’t be a shock to see Barcelona emerge victorious in the “possession” battle, it’s at least likely that the Blaugrana will not have the vast swathes of it that they usually do. No more “sterile possession” for the sake of keeping the ball; Barcelona will have to make the most of every opportunity they get; move the ball quickly, efficiently – try to beat Bayern Munich at their own game. Push the tempo, press when possible; anything they can do to take the game to Guardiola and Bayern needs to be done.
Don’t be afraid to play the killer pass, trust the defense and above all else, trust in yourselves; that’s the message I would convey to the Barça squad. This match may be “friendly” by name, but that doesn’t mean we should play it safe, regardless of the opposition.
With six pre-season fixtures under their belt, Bayern Munich have scored an outstanding 35 goals, and conceded just once – in the weekend’s 5-1 Telekom Cup victory over Borussia Monchengladbach. In this 60 minute encounter, the reigning Bundesliga and European champions experimented with a new system, featuring captain Philipp Lahmin midfield and still won convincingly. At the moment, Bayern Munich, and Pep Guardiola can do no wrong. Four defenders, three defenders; three midfielders, six midfielders – none of it really makes a difference, as Bayern continue to cruise to victory regardless of formations and tactics.
However, they are unlikely to have it all their own way tomorrow when they host Barcelona. With the German Super Cup looming, Guardiola will probably forget about experimentations, and attempt to run a sort of “dress-rehearsal” for Saturday’s match against Borussia Dortmund. Getting back to basics if you will; whether that’s a 4-1-4-1, or a 4-2-3-1, or something else entirely.
Manuel Neuer hasn’t featured in three of Bayern’s last four friendly fixtures; but expect to see him start tomorrow – at least for the first-half – with what’s likely to be a strong Bayern defense. After starting in midfield on Sunday, one suspects that Philipp Lahm will find his way back to the right-hand side of defense, while Dante could make his first start under Guardiola in the centre of defense. Jerome Boateng, Daniel Van Buyten and Jan Kirchhoff are also contenders for a starting berth, with David Alaba and Diego Contento each likely to see game-time at left-back.
Bastian Schweinsteiger will almost certainly miss this match as Guardiola is keen to keep his midfield general injury-free for the start of the season, while Javi Martinez has not yet played a single minute under Pep, something that’s unlikely to change tomorrow. Luiz Gustavo is reportedly on his way out of the club, leaving Toni Kroos and Thiago Alcântara the most “likely” midfield pairing for tomorrow’s match. Kroos missed the latter stages of Bayern’s UEFA Champions League triumph, so we didn’t get to see him in action against the Blaugrana, while obviously we know an awful lot about Thiago. Can they function together? Almost certainly, but are they disciplined enough to help out defensively, particularly up against Lionel Messi?
Neither Thiago nor Kroos made his name as a Makelele-esque midfield destroyer anyway; something that Messi will be keen to exploit. Although be that as it may, Guardiola will probably have numbers on his side, as Thiago and Kroos could be joined in midfield by Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. Maybe Lahm will be used in midfield after all? You never quite know with Pep, but on paper at least, there should be space for Barcelona to thrive, just as long as they can keep the ball away from Munich’s suffocating high-press.
After toying with a “strikerless” formation, expect Guardiola to restore the hard-working Mario Mandzukic to the starting line-up, unless he really wants to pack the midfield.
Bayern Munich: WWWWWW
FC Barcelona 0-3 Bayern Munich – 1st May 2013 – UEFA Champions League Semi-Final
Bayern Munich booked their place at Wembley with another convincing win over the Blaugrana, as second-half goals from Arjen Robben, Gerard Piqué (OG) and Thomas Müller secured an emphatic 7-0 aggregate win for the Bavarians.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Song, JDS, Roberto; Alexis, Messi, Tello
Barcelona (4-3-3): Oier; Patric, Sergi Gomez, Mascherano, Planas; Samper, Ilie, Espinosa; Nieto, Dongou, Roman
Bayern Munich (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Lahm, Van Buyten, Dante, Alaba; Thiago, Kroos; Robben, Müller, Ribery; Mandzukic
Barcelona have only just started pre-season, are without the majority of their starting XI, and don’t even have a permanent manager to lead them out at the Allianz, against a Bayern side that’s continuing to dominate all-comers under our best-ever coach, Pep Guardiola. There appears to be no way that Barcelona will win, but this is only a friendly after all; the result is irrelevant. Still, I’ll predict a close first-half (possibly finishing 1-1) and depending on the scale of each team’s substitutions, I can see Bayern running away with it in the second-half. 3-1 Bayern.