Bayern Munich cast Barcelona in strange new role of European underdogs
Tonight at the Allianz Arena will be different and unfamiliar for Barcelona, even though it is their sixth consecutive Champions League semi-final.
Because, for the first time in years, they are the underdogs. Bayern Munich, untouchable in the Bundesliga, must be firm favourites at home against a team that, for all their success, have often struggled on the road in Europe.
Since this Barcelona team came into being with the appointment of Pep Guardiola in summer 2008, they have done their best knockout work at the Nou Camp. Even in their gloriously successful last five years, under Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, their away record is poor. Of their last 14 knockout away legs, since the last-16 ties of February 2009, Barça have won just three.
Of those three wins, only one was truly meaningful, a famous triumph at this stage two years ago when Barcelona won 2-0 at Real Madrid. The other two were certainly less significant: a 1-0 quarter-final win at Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011 after the tie had been thoroughly won in Barcelona, and a breezy 3-1 win at Bayer Leverkusen last February.
But the other 11 games have been, more often than not, tight score draws or even defeats.
Barcelona cannot always exert the same control over possession on the road, or play with the same fluency. Or maybe they just trust themselves to do the job at home. In the last 16 this year, they were well beaten 2-0 in Milan before playing brilliantly to win the second leg 4-0 at the Nou Camp. In the quarter-finals, Barça were held to a stormy 2-2 draw away to Paris St-Germain before a one-legged Lionel Messi was summoned from the bench to salvage a 1-1 draw at home which sent them through. The Argentine will certainly start tonight.
"We have to try and take him out of the game and stay close to him," said the Bayern midfielder Javi Martinez, who, after years in La Liga with Athletic Bilbao, will at least know what he is letting himself in for.
Recent history, then, does not exactly argue for a Barcelona win tonight. Nor does the fact that they are facing Europe's form team. Bayern Munich are the first champions of a major league this season, having taken an astonishing 81 points from a possible 90. They were brilliant in their first leg at Arsenal, but poor in the second, and twice outplayed a very adept Juventus side to win 4-0 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.
"This season, we've built up enough belief in ourselves to cope with Barcelona," said Philipp Lahm, the Bayern captain. "We're aiming to win. Once you've made the semis, you want to progress to the final."
Bayern look like a team close to peaking, which makes their potential next season under Guardiola faintly terrifying. But after the pain of Champions League final defeats in 2010 and 2012, there may well be an extra edge to them this season. Martinez has been an exceptional addition, forming the game's most authoritative, powerful engine room alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Their usual midfield partner, the brilliant Toni Kroos, is injured so Jupp Heynckes is more likely to call on the pace of Arjen Robben. Robben's direct, blinkered style can look slightly out of place in such a well-developed unit as Bayern but he might be effective tonight. Barcelona looked uncertain against pace on the break against Milan and Paris, and tonight – with Marc Bartra at centre-back – they could be even weaker. With Robben, Franck Ribéry and Thomas Müller, Bayern could mix their usual control with something more explosive.
Bayern feel that after years of progress, they are ready to look the brilliant Catalans in the eye. "We face a huge challenge," Lahm said. "For many years Barcelona have been the best and the team to beat. But this is a meeting between equals, and we have the right kind of players to hurt Barcelona."
Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Allianz Arena. TV ITV 1
Referee V Kassai (Hun) *one booking from ban
Odds: Home 5-4 Draw 13-5 Away 13-5
Belfast Telegraph Digital