"Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win." Gary Lineker
It’s arguably one of the more amusing quotes ever produced to describe the beautiful game. Nonetheless, there’s also a pinch of truth to the former Leicester City player’s proclamation. German sides, both on club and international level, seem to revel in tournaments.
The German national team, as well as various Bundesliga sides, regularly qualify for the latter stages of international competitions. This year however, there’s no Premier League representative at semi-final stage to deny the remaining German sides, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, the path to the Champions League final. Coincidentally, the showpiece event for Europe’s most prestigious club competition is contested at Wembley of all places.
Imagine if two German sides qualified for the Champions League final? A German team winning a European Cup, on English soil, in the most storied of football arenas.
There’s a decent chance this scenario could indeed become reality. Borussia Dortmund has already bettered their opponents Real Madrid at the group stages, and there’s very little to suggest they can’t repeat this feat.
Then there’s the glamour tie of this year’s semi-finals, the newly crowned Bundesliga champions FC Bayern Munich versus the soon-to-be confirmed La Liga title elect FC Barcelona. But that’s not the only common denominator between these two behemoths of European football.
Both teams have won the Champions League trophy four times. Furthermore, in the last four years either side has reached the Champions League final twice. But whereas the Catalan giants added more silverware to their trophy cabinet (2009 & 2011), the Bavarian outfit was defeated on both occasions (2010 & 2012). Even more fascinating is the fact that Die Roten lost both finals to FC Barcelona’s opponents at semi-final stage (Inter Milan and Chelsea FC).
Recent history indicates that defeating FC Barcelona in the semi-finals leads to European glory (Manchester United 2007-08; Inter Milan 2009-10; Chelsea FC 2011-12). However, the Blaugrana have always won the Champions League in the season following their semi-final heartbreak. Although the pattern favors the Catalan giants, Bayern Munich should be considered the slight favorites in this tie.
Of course no side that has Lionel Messi amidst their ranks can be considered an underdog, but Barcelona is far from being the all-conquering juggernaut of seasons past. While Lionel Messi goalscoring prowess has reached new stratospheric heights, his fellow forwards have become less prolific with each passing season. The Argentine’s outrageous consistency (57 goals and 17 assists in 46 games in all competitions), masks two of Barcelona’s main vulnerabilities, defense and attack.
Though the Catalans have become more direct under new manager Tito Vilanova, Barcelona’s main forwards sans Lionel Messi haven’t scored more goals. By allowing Lionel Messi to play as a false 9, he can freely roam around the pitch in anticipation to exploit any gaps in the opponent’s defense. But while it’s a good enough tactic for the majority of the adversaries Barcelona face at home and on the continent, it’s limitations are exposed by defensively disciplined sides.
Defend against Lionel Messi, and defend in numbers. AC Milan first leg victory against FC Barcelona in the knockout stages has proven that is possible to contain Lionel Messi, thus rendering the Blaugrana’s superior possession obsolete. Considering that the Italians had to readjust their defense after the exit and sale of their stalwarts Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva in the previous summer, that’s no mean feat.
In Munich FC Barcelona will encounter the meanest defensive in all of Europe. Die Roten just conceded 14 goals in 30 Bundesliga games. In comparison, the Blaugrana conceded 33 goals in 32 La Liga matches, more than double the tally than the German champions. Granted, the played two games more than their Bavarian rivals, but then again, Barcelona compete in a league where financial disparity is greater than in Germany. Meaning Barcelona should have a much better record than they have.
Furthermore, unlike AC Milan, who couldn’t count on the services of cup-tied Mario Balotelli and still managed to score two goals against Barcelona, Bayern Munich has options aplenty in attack. The Bavarian side has four forwards with 10 or more goals in all competitions (Mario Mandzukic 21, Thomas Müller 18, Mario Gomez 15, Claudio Pizarro 13). It must be noted that only Mandzukic and Müller are automatic starters. In addition Die Roten have no less than six players with 10 or more assists (Philip Lahm, Franck Ribery 16; Thomas Müller 14; Arjen Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri 12; Bastian Schweinsteiger 10).
Besides, they also boast the second best possession percentage in Europe (64%), second only to Barcelona (70%).
Barcelona on the other hand only has three players with double figures for goals (Lionel Messi 57, David Villa 14, Cesc Fabregas 13), but five players with 10 plus assists (Andres Iniesta 21, Lionel Messi 17, Cesc Fabregas 14, Alexis Sanchez 12, Pedro 11).
Unfortunately, Bayern must manage without the suspended Mario Mandzukic who not only offers goals but also the willingness to press all over the pitch, which would aid the Bavarians, especially against a defense as suspect as Barcelona’s. Still, with Mario Gomez the Germans can rely on arguably the best pure penalty-box striker in the game. Gomez doesn’t do much, least of all pressing, but he’s a finisher par excellence.
Barcelona’s two most productive players, in terms of goals and assists are Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. However, featuring both players in the same line-up usually comes at the expense of shifting Andres Iniesta out wide, which in turn unbalances Barcelona’s midfield since Fabregas is less tactically disciplined than El Ilusionista. It can be argued that Fabregas best position within Barcelona’s setup is Messi’s role, because it doesn’t require him to track back.
In terms of measurable contribution Fabregas is Barcelona’s second best player, but incorporating him in a side with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi has thus been impossible thus far. Normally, one would likely start their two or three best goalscorers but it only leads to an imbalanced team, at least in this particular Barcelona side. Add David Villa’s fluctuating form (or lack thereof) and the Blaugrana become even more predictable, and dependent on Lionel Messi to produce the goods, or goals for that matter.
It’s either a narrow victory for Barcelona (1:0 or 2:1) or a thrashing courtesy of Bayern Munich (3:0).
Let’s hope Gary Lineker is proven wrong. After all, he used to be an FC Barcelona player.
You can follow Sebastian on Twitter @JubeiKibagame