Berlin calling: Barça, Juve close in on Champions League final

Christian Soler on May 11, 2015 03:04 PM
Berlin calling: Barça, Juve close in on UCL final
(via AP Images)

follow Christian Soler on Twitter: @christiansoler

 

IF you predicted a 3-0 Barcelona thrashing of Bayern Munich, you must be lying.

The Pep Guardiola derby didn’t exactly live up to expectations as the Catalan giants unleashed a clinical combination of first-rate, 1v1 master class and stout defending to humiliate Deutschland’s Rekordmeisters. Barça’s performance was as splendid as Bayern’s self-destruction. While the German champions outpassed Barcelona by 91, and had more of the ball (53 to 47 percent), they took a page out of schoolboy tackling with an abysmal 30 percent rate. Center backs Jérôme Boateng, a mainstay for the reigning World Cup champions, and highly rated Moroccan Mehdi Benatia were not able to pull off a successful tackle all match long (0/10). In contrast, the usual slick passing game Luis Enrique’s side gracefully employs was augmented by impressive take ons. Lionel Messi posted 10/14 successful 1v1 moves, part of an impressive team tally of 28/46 successful take ons. For all of Bayern’s possession and passing, it was toothless in that category, managing a less than pedestrian 3/10 successful 1v1 moves. Call it missing Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. Call it overpassing in the middle third. Call it whatever you please, but it was a horrendous display from one of Europe’s elite squads.

Is this tie as good as done? If previous results are to go by, the answer would be a resounding no. At the Allianz Arena, Bayern put six past Porto in the quarterfinals and seven past Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 16, with both resounding score lines coming in the second legs of both ties. Unfortunately, Barça is no Porto, and no Shakhtar. That said, Guardiola will most certainly switch things up tactically. In the Barcelona match, Bayern lined up in a 3-4-2-1, with Rafinha joining Benatia and Boateng. With the score at 0-0, Guardiola inexplicably switched up to a 4-2-3-1, moving the excitable Juan Bernat to left back and placing Thiago Alcantara in a more advanced position. Theoretically, a 4-2-3-1 provides greater width. But as the heat map shows, much of Bayern’s movements were confined to the middle of the park, a danger zone for opponents as Sergio Busquets is one of the world’s premier holding midfielders. And as the first leg showed, even Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitić tracked back to clog the center of the pitch and Bayern’s point of attack.

Expect Bayern to go all out from the opening whistle in a 3-4-2-1, with Mario Götze starting for the simple reason that there’s no other viable option to accompany Thomas Müller behind lone striker Robert Lewandowski. Another one of Guardiola’s uncharacteristic tactical blunders was putting Bastian Schweinsteiger in an attacking position. He’d be more suited anchoring the four-man midfield.

Barcelona, meanwhile, might opt for the more conservative route. But then again, this is Barcelona, the very antithesis of negative football no matter the score line. Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar, a.k.a. MSN, have understandably hogged the headlines. Equally important, though, is the supply line. Rakitić and the immortal Andrés Iniesta have epitomized what an engine room is supposed to be like. If Bayern can’t deny the supply to MSN, the short trip to Berlin would be nothing but an unfulfilled dream.

 

 

MSN are the headline grabbers, but the duo of Iniesta and Rakitić is equally electric

 

For the neutrals, the Juventus-Real Madrid tiff was quite simply mouthwatering. Despite threatening for much of the match, the defending champions just could not unlock the Italian side’s midfield. Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal simply bossed the match from midfield, which manager Massimilliano Allegri enjoys clogging with his unorthodox 3-5-1-1 formation. Sacrificing width for wave after wave of attacks from the center of the pitch, Juventus managed to push Real Madrid’s forays to the wings. In other words, wingers James Rodríguez and Jesé couldn’t cut to the middle, something Cristiano Ronaldo favors when he plays out wide. Arguably, the Real wingers were both uncomfortable down the flanks, which is the most ideal area to pounce on when confronted by a three-man defense, which is Juventus’ weapon of choice. At the same time, the prodigious Portuguese star, deployed as a striker with Gareth Bale, was limited to the final third of the pitch and unable to pick up the ball from the edge of the middle third to link up with his attacking teammates. It was a piece of tactical genius from Allegri.

 

Marchisio, Pirlo, and Vidal’s passing, respectively

 

 

 

The capital club, however, will enter the second leg at the Santiago Bernabéu as favorites despite the impending return of the world’s most sought after midfielder, Paul Pogba, to the Juventus XI. Ronaldo will most likely wreck havoc as a striker because of Karim Benzema’s injury. Isco must use his pace down the flanks to exploit Juventus’ packed backline.

Conversely, manager Carlo Ancelotti could revert to his favored 4-3-3 configuration, employed in the title-denting match with Valencia over the weekend. Javier Hernández lined up as a center forward, flanked by Ronaldo and Bale, and Sergio Ramos returning to the heart of the defense after his much maligned performances in a holding role. An attacking 4-3-3 is one of the best formations to kill of a 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1, so employing this is a very distinct possibility.

For the Merengues to overcome the 2-1 first leg deficit, they need stellar performances from their engine room as well: The versatile Toni Kroos is the key man in midfield, but was forced to exit the Valencia match due to a thigh knock. It isn’t as gargantuan a task as Bayern is faced with, so an El Clásico final in Germany’s capital city is highly likely.

 

Catch the 2nd Leg of the UEFA Champions League Semifinals on these dates:

Wednesday, May 13: Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona at 2:30 (LIVE on BALLS Channel and ABS-CBN Sports + Action 23)

Thursday, May 14: Real Madrid vs. Juventus at 2:30 am (LIVE on BALLS Channel and ABS-CBN Sports + Action 23)

 

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