Barca's time to shine!

Posted by Francesc Tomas

Despite being the most successful team at the European level in recent history, having qualified for six consecutive semi-finals and lifted the title three times in the last seven years, football experts around the world seem to agree that Barcelona are not favourites to beat Bayern Munich and qualify for the final round of the competition.

Personally, I don't necessarily share their opinion, but can clearly understand what makes them think that way.

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The absence of key defensive players such as the courageous Carles Puyol or Javier Mascherano has undeniably weakened the Blaugrana back line, to the point that any set piece against instantly becomes an even clearer goal-scoring chance for their opponents.

Let's face it: The Catalans have been struggling to protect their own goal when challenged in the air for years and despite the fact that the signing of a taller, experienced defender will rightfully top the club's wish list once the transfer window opens in the summer, it won't improve the team that will imminently face Bayern at the Allianz Arena.

Under Tito Vilanova, the Catalan side have become more direct, less speculative and always ready to make that crucial through pass into space even when faced with rigid, seemingly faultless defences. Inevitably, taking such a risky approach upfront can sometimes cause devastating counterattacks, leaving Gerard Pique and whoever may be partnering him at that stage dangerously exposed.

There, in a nutshell, are the main differences between the current Barcelona and the one that Pep Guardiola famously left behind 10 months ago. Fortunately though, all other aspects either remain the same or, if they have worsened slightly, are easily fixable when players are determined to step up in order to overcome difficult challenges, as the world of football found out in the return leg against AC Milan a couple of rounds ago.

I am confident that this golden generation of players can win the tie against the Bundesliga champions if they can take control of the midfield and regain their relentless defensive pressure whenever dispossessed. In other words, if the Catalans are to be successful in Germany, every single player must do their utmost to press intensively as soon as Bayern regain control of the ball, wherever in the pitch that may be.

Sure, the Germans' form in the build-up to the opening match at the Allianz Arena has been impressive, but it would definitely be foolish of the hosts to count a team with the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez out before the ball kicked off. I can certainly not see the current generation of players going out of Europe without a fight of epic proportions.

Considering the points described above, my line-up ahead of this highly anticipated match is clear:

Defence: Victor Valdes on goal; Dani Alves and Jordi Alba as fullbacks with the freedom to push up as long as their backs have been cautiously covered; Gerard Pique and rising youngster Marc Bartra partnering in a more central position, ensuring gaps are constantly closed between them.

Midfield: The key of this tie will certainly be winning the possession battle and transforming smooth ball transition into goal-scoring chances. Unsurprisingly, I am confident that the magic Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta triangle have the skills to carry out that task as well as they have done over the years, bringing tons of success to the Camp Nou in the process.

On a side note, I would like to add that despite the visible improvement that Alex Song has demonstrated lately, I would still prioritise Busquets' ability to combine quickly within tight spaces and read Xavi or Iniesta's movements above the Cameroonian international's more physical game.

And before you ask: No, I don't feel playing with a 'Doble Pivote' partnership (as Spain normally does) can be considered an option as such change would only indicate weakness and doubts about the formation that has proven so effective in the club's recent past. This is certainly not the time to experiment with new ideas, but to trust the club's traditional style.

Attack: It seems clear that, after resting and progressively returning to training for a considerable 10 days, the one and only Messi will be ready to face Die Roten, instantly giving his teammates and Cules around the world an essential, necessary boost.

Assuming that La Pulga will be placed in his ideal false striker position and given freedom to drop into midfield whenever needed, I would choose the unpredictable mobility of Alexis Sanchez and the reliable goal-scoring threat that David Villa poses from the wings. Their ability to throw diagonal runs and move into spaces by finding gaps behind rival defences could prove decisive.

Final Word

While full respect must be given to the Bundesliga champions, it would make no sense for Barcelona to start fearing rivals at this stage of the competition, whatever their names may be.

Having lifted the most precious European Cup four times in their history, Cules know what it takes to succeed at the highest level. This group of players has achieved glory in this competition before and there is no major reason to think such heights can't be reached again this season if they remain as hungry as ever.

Next up, Bayern Munich. Time to sit back and enjoy one of the biggest shows on Earth.

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