Game to Watch: Barca's biggest challenge yet lies in Bavaria

[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] Barcelona's sixth straight semifinal appearance required a stirring comeback against AC Milan, edging Paris St. Germain with Lionel Messi spending over half the quarterfinals on the bench injured, and the emotional toll of Coach Tito Villanova’s cancer recurrence. Now all that stands between the global phenomena that is Barcelona and Wembley is a German goliath. Bayern Munich has been Europe's most dominant team all season, while Barca is the best of this generation. Tuesday at the Allianz Arena in Germany, the year’s most compelling two-game drama begins.

TV: Bayern Munich–Barcelona (Tuesday 2:45 pm ET, Fox Soccer)

WHAT’VE YOU WON FOR ME LATELY: Barcelona was founded in 1899; it owns 21 Spanish titles. Bayern Munich was founded in 1900; it owns 23 German crowns. Both clubs hold four European Cups, but these figures aren’t reflected by current perception.

There isn’t a place on earth where a little girl, or an old man, wearing a Barca jersey would raise an eyebrow anymore. Barcelona and Lionel Messi have captured the world’s imagination unlike any team since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. A fusion of individual and cumulative genius extending beyond sport, gender and demographics, blurring lines to create a living breathing drama starring James Dean in cleats, soft-spoken and constantly scoring.

After losing in two of the last three UCL finals, including last May on its home field, finishing this season without Philipp Lahm raising Bayern’s first Champions League trophy since 2001 will evoke far less flattering comparisons for Bayern, like the Buffalo Bills, who after losing four-straight Super Bowls became synonymous with the words “all most” in America.

"I'll give everything in my power, I've contested two Champions League finals with Bayern ...” said Arjen Robben. “But at the end of the day, you have to go on and win the cup at some point."

NOUVEU NO. 9: These clubs last met in the 2009 UCL when Barca pounded Bayern en route to raising the trophy in Rome. Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Messi (twice) all scored in the first leg. Barca’s top scorers that season were Eto’o with 30 La Liga goals, Messi 23 and Henry with 19. Personnel choices, and Messi’s inescapable dominance, have made for a far different Barca in 2013.

Eto’o was swapped for one-year of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who followed Henry out the door in 2010. David Villa, Spain’s all-time leading scorer, was acquired and implemented as a winger-scorer, similar to Alexis Sanchez, acquired from Udinese, and Pedro from Barcelona B.

In 2010 Messi had 34 league goals, Ibra 16 and Pedro 12. In 2011 Messi had 31, Villa 18 and Pedro 13. In 2012 Messi had 50, Alexis 12 and Xavi 10. Through 32 games in 2012-13 Messi has 43 goals, Cesc Fabregas 10 and Villa 8.

No player symbolizes the change at Bayern Munich like Mario Gomez, a traditional striker who scored once too often. Gomez had 28 league goals in 2011 and 26 last season, the most in Germany over that period, and the only reason he, or Claudio Pizarro, may start on Tuesday is because Gomez's replacement is suspended.

The newcomer, Croatian Mario Mandzukic, is a swiss army knife. Scoring, dropping, effortlessly linking with Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery, and Bayern’s deep well of talent. The result is a thousand daggers. Bayern had 81 league goals in 2011, 77 in 2012, but already has 89 this season with four games left, while Mandzukic leads with just 15, and everybody’s happy, but Gomez.

AERIAL ADVANTAGE: Barcelona’s only field starters over 5-foot-9 in its last game with PSG were Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, but Barca hasn’t always been small. Eto’o, Henry and Ibrahimovic average 6-foot-2. Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita, Rafa Marquez, Busquets and Pique all featured in that 2009 game with Bayern, none under 6-foot.

The only Bayern players under 5-foot-11 appearing at Juventus were Ribery and Lahm, while six Bayern field players were over 6-foot-2.

REPUTATION VS. RESUME: Barca’s sole win in six matches against Real Madrid this season came in August’s Supercopa, won by Madrid. In fact, Barcelona’s only tour de force all season might be its 4-0 drubbing of Milan.

On the brink of breaking countless records, Bayern’s laid waste to opponents large and small this season. It beat France’s fourth-place team, Lille, 7-1 during two group stage tilts, crushed Arsenal in London, knocked Borussia Dortmund out of the German Cup, and off of its Bundesliga throne, and the 4-0 ownership of Juventus over two quarterfinal legs may be Europe’s most impressive feat this season.

THE SKINNY: Bayern has won 13 straight league games coming in after winning its first eight Bundesliga games, and its depth is such that Toni Kroos’ absence isn’t noteworthy. Messi reportedly trained full speed on Thursday and Sunday, and after watching Barcelona flounder without him, that is noteworthy.

Forecasting how this first leg will play out before the opening salvos are fired seems presumptuous. The world’s best teams will be at the Allianz Arena in Germany on Tuesday, and their exploits will be beamed to every country on planet earth. A moment of gratitude for both those facts, and two hours to take it all in, should suffice -- until they reconvene in Spain eight days later.

1 comment about "Game to Watch: Barca's biggest challenge yet lies in Bavaria".
  1. ROBERT BOND, April 23, 2013 at 11:16 a.m.

    #9 got a yellow for standing in front of a kick, horrible call from a Spanish ref-don,t want anyone to be hurt, but if Messi is limited, helps to balance out.....Robben playing better off the bench to fill in for Kroos, Goetze in that mix next year-WOW!

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