Can there possibly be a more mouth-watering prospect in the whole of the 2015 football calendar than Barcelona v Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou tonight?
Well, actually, yes there can – and it would be, in all probability, Bayern Munich v Barcelona in the Allianz Arena in six days’ time.
The built-in assumption here, of course, is that this Champions League semi-final heavyweight clash will still be alive after the final whistle in the Camp Nou, not something one is entirely entitled to take for granted when stellar Barca are at home.
On the other hand, this evening’s visitors are of a different calibre to most of what the Catalans have come up against this season, so much so that even when they leave themselves with a mountain to climb, the Bavarians can — as shell-shocked Porto discovered in the quarter-finals — make the toughest redemptive challenge seem like child’s play.
Of course, there’s chapter and verse in football lore to make anyone think twice about confidently predicting a solid gold classic. In my own case, I still wince at the memory of the 1991 European Cup Final between Red Star Belgrade and Marseille. Coming on the back of Italia ’90 and all that, there was a new audience for football in this country that was ripe for further indoctrination and, at the time, I had no hesitation in assuring various less than committed types that they should drop everything to watch what had all the makings of a classic final in Bari.
In fairness, the omens were outstanding. Red Star had the likes of Robert Prosinecki and Darko Pancev on board while Marseille could respond with Chris Waddle and Ballon d’Or winner Jean-Marie Papin amongst others. And the clubs’ respective paths to the final had been nothing less than exhilarating. In the last tournament before the introduction of the group stage, the Yugoslavs had scored 19 times in eight games, including a sensational last-minute 4-3 aggregate win against Bayern, while the French side had gone one better in the same number of matches (including their controversial quarter-final victory against AC Milan who refused to come back onto pitch — and thus forfeited the tie — when the floodlights failed as the game entered stoppage time with Marseille leading 2-1 on aggregate).
And so what happened in the final? In what amounted to an act of footballing betrayal, fear of losing wholly eclipsed will to win in Italy, casting such a dark, depressing shadow that two hitherto attack-minded teams proceeded to stink the place out in a scoreless draw, before Red Star claimed the trophy in a penalty shoot-out. By which point, nobody outside of Belgrade really gave a hoot.
So, yes, football is never short on warnings from history but, that said, there are still solid reasons to be cheerful rather than fearful about the quality of tonight’s entertainment, and not least because if Luis Enrique went mad and decided to field only a three-man team, well, just so long as his selection consisted of the holy trinity of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, you’d still fancy Barcelona to nick a goal. Or maybe two.
As it happens, the Barca coach has the luxury of pretty much a full-strength squad to choose from for tonight’s game, which is more than can be said of the homecoming Pep Guardiola who, although he’s likely to have a masked man at his disposal in the form of Robert Lewandowski, will once again be without such superheroes as Franck Ribery, David Alaba and, most woundingly, the one-man game-changer that is Arjen Robben.
Indeed, if there is one legitimate reason to anticipate something less than a classic tonight, it lies in the extensive injury woes which are likely to make Bayern err on the side of caution, at least until they get a chance to bring Barca back to their own place in a week’s time.
For the neutral then — and let’s be honest, that generally means being more Barca than Bayern friendly — the ideal scenario would be for the home side to fly out of the blocks, forcing the visitors to go in search of the away goal that could prove crucial to keeping their hopes of reaching the final alive.
Certainly, that’s the way Barca are warming up, having scored 14 goals in their last two La Liga games, including that 8-0 massacre away to Cordoba which, for those who didn’t watch it on the box, ended with the poignant spectacle of the home fans whistling to be put out of their misery as the ref insisted on playing the game’s allotted additional time.
Of course, ‘understrength’ is a relative term when you’re Bayern Munich and can still call on the likes of Muller, Lahm and, if passed fit, Lewandowski, and even more so when you have a manager who can boast the deep insider knowledge which Guardiola possesses about tonight’s opponents.
Then again, knowing Lionel Messi and doing something about him are two very different things.
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