Champions League

FOX Soccer Exclusive

Bayern poised to take Barca's crown

FOX Soccer News: Reaction from the Champions League semifinal draw.
FOX Soccer News: Reaction from the Champions League semifinal draw.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Europe’s incumbent dynasty will face the aspiring dynasty in the UEFA Champions League, as Bayern Munich hosts Barcelona in the first leg of their semifinals (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET).

Increasingly, elite European club soccer is a game of dynasties. As the sport globalizes and the big money is sucked towards the already-rich, a small band of moneyed giants propped up by enormous television contracts and merchandise sales or some overinvested sheikh or oligarch dominates the rarified atmosphere.

This may change, if UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations prove to have any bite. They go into effect for the 2014-15 season, when any club that doesn’t break even or demonstrates a viable plan to risks being banned from continental competition. Or it could freeze the status quo in perpetuity. Either way, at the moment there are only a few clubs with the talent and clout to aspire to being the continent’s best over the span of several years. And the mightiest of them will now face each other.

DOWN TO FOUR

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Barca have been imperious over the last half decade. Should they win this year’s Champions League it would be their third in five years. They’ve dazzled with their dizzying short-passing game and in the process re-invented the way the sport can be played. They’ve stocked the Spanish national team, which won the European Championship, the World Cup and then the Euro again with its Barca spine. They’ve nurtured and let blossom perhaps the greatest player ever in Lionel Messi. They have won six trophies in a single season and were victorious in 14 out of the 19 competitions they entered during the four seasons Pep Guardiola was in charge from 2008-09 through 2011-12.

Like Bayern, Barca ran away with their domestic league this year, reclaiming the title from their arch-rivals – Real Madrid in Barca’s case and Borussia Dortmund in Bayern’s. But whereas Bayern is very much maturing into an all-time great side, Barca appears to no longer find itself on the right side of the growth curve. Attacking masterminds Xavi and Andres Iniesta have shown no signs of wear, even though the former is now 33, and neither, of course, has Messi. But striker David Villa (31) is no longer the infallible finisher he once was and the club has no other reliable goalscorers – behind Messi’s 57, only Villa (14) and Cesc Fabregas (13) have scored more than nine goals. Right back Dani Alves, once a terror to opponents when overlapping Messi, has fallen off somewhat as well. And the back line, which was never exactly a stronghold, is now a full-on liability.

Under Guardiola’s successor Tito Vilanova – the promoted assistant coach – Barca has wobbled at times this European season, as they have when Vilanova was away for cancer treatment and replaced by his own assistant Jordi Roura. In the group stage, they lost at Celtic, an unimaginable upset, and couldn’t unlock Benfica’s defense at home in a 0-0 draw. They lost the first leg of the round of 16 2-0 to AC Milan, necessitating a furious comeback at home for a 4-2 aggregate win. And in the quarterfinals against Paris Saint-Germain, both games ended in a tie and it took a 71st minute Pedro goal to see Barca through on aggregate away goals.

Barca still weave their magic at times, but the wins are no longer a given in the Champions League.

Bayern, meanwhile, only ever seem to get stronger. With several world class players in every line – Mario Mandzukic or Mario Gomez up front; Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller or Arjen Robben on the wings; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Javi Martinez in midfield; Philipp Lahm at right back; Manuel Neuer in goal – and a stocked bench, they are better equipped to handle the rigors of the congested schedule of modern football than any other club. And in addition to possessing superior depth, they are more versatile than Barca. As we’ve seen several times this year, Barca comes unstuck when its vaunted death-by-thousand-paper-cuts passing game isn’t working. Bayern has a great many weapons, and can score in different ways – on the wings, through the middle, over the top.

UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

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And Bayern has arguably been the best team in the Champions League over the last year and a half. They were unlucky not to win last year’s edition, going down to Chelsea on a late equalizer and penalties in the final, when they were plainly the best team in the tournament. And while they haven’t been perfect this year either – they lost to BATE Borisov in the group stage and let Arsenal win 2-0 in the second leg of the round of 16 after taking away a 3-1 lead from the first leg in London – they never looked in any danger of being eliminated.

The honest observer has to concede that Bayern has played the continent’s best football all year. And Tuesday – in conjunction with their second leg against Barca next Wednesday – might be remembered as the date that they officially ascended to the throne.
 

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