MUNICH — Manchester United face a confident Bayern Munich side with all to play for as the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League conclude at the Allianz Arena (live, FOX Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET). Looking relaxed under the glare of the international press, Josep Guardiola and his players insisted they would bat away this newly resurgent United side and reach the semifinals with ease.
Despite holding the edge of an away goal after the 1-1 draw last week, Bayern have hit what, for them, passes for a slump: they were held unexpectedly at Old Trafford and then lost their first game in 54 matches on the weekend to Augsburg, admittedly fielding a team of scrubs. They have not won in three matches, so Guardiola addressed the speculation — or is that worry? — flying around Munich by saying, adamantly, “I am sure we will get to the semifinals.”
“Naturally, Manchester think they can do something here and people are saying after Newcastle and after Bayern, ‘oh Manchester, Manchester,’’” said Guardiola. “But we have a big advantage in Munich. If we’re not in the semifinals, it is a huge mistake. If we’re not in the finals the club cannot deal with that.”
Guardiola and Philipp Lahm also expressed confidence they have addressed the issues that bedeviled the side last week, namely the lack of a cutting edge against a very defensive United side set up to stifle.
“English teams are so defensive and they use the counter attack very well,” said Guardiola. "They wait for a mistake, and away, they stay at home and defend. Maybe [David] Moyes is thinking another thing, but I think they are going to wait, put 8 or 9 players in box and wait for a mistake or a [set-piece] to punish us. It’s what happened in Manchester and I am pretty sure and it’s what will happen here.”
“You look forward to these games,” added Lahm. “We’re absolutely determined to reach the semifinals. Last game we were missing the final pass, and we have spoken about the goal we conceded in Manchester. We have worked on our marking in practice. But Manchester had only one chance last week. And we will do what we always do.”
Be that as it may, Manchester United have some reasons to feel confident. They are coming off two big results: that unexpected draw and a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle on Saturday sparked by a man of the match performance from Juan Mata. Mata is ineligible for Wednesday’s game (cup-tied) but United got a boost with the news that Wayne Rooney has recovered from his toe injury and trained on Tuesday monring at Carrington. Robin van Persie is a long-term injury absentee and will not travel. Rafael did not practice with Manchester United and is questionable along with Ashley Young, who suffered a hand injury.
Guardiola laughed off any speculation that Rooney would not feature, joking with an English journalist that, “I will bet you a large class of beer [Rooney plays]. 100%.” But he did point out that his own ranks are thinned – “I only have 14 first team players” — due to injuries and suspensions; Bastian Schweinsteiger suspended after his late ejection along with Javi Martinez (accumulation); Thiago Alcantara remains sidelined due to injury, along with Xherdan Shaqiri and Diego Contento.
Despite the bravado, there are a couple of facts on the ground. One is that Bayern Munich are clearly one of the best teams in the world, setting records with abandon. The other is that their strong suit — that iron-clad confidence — can be shattered if a team presses them hard. Arsenal proved that last year, and United showed that last week, rattling Bayern with a disciplined performance that culminated in a stunning goal from Nemanja Vidic.
And while this would be an astonishing smash-and grab, it would not be entirely unprecedented: while United haven’t won a Champions League match at the Allianz, Bayern have struggled against English teams here as well, failing to win their last four matches against Premier League sides. And that brought up the issue of penalties who Guardiola, who laughed off the suggestion that his side had been practicing them just in case.
“You don’t practice penalties, you cannot.” said Guardiola. “It’s all up here [tapping his head].”
But Guardiola also pointedly declined to release his lineup, or to discuss where Lahm would be deployed. He refused to comment on a report in Bild that claimed Lahm would slip back to right back, with Toni Kroos deputized in Schweinsteiger’s position with Mario Goetze and Mario Mandzukic lead the line out. That may be what passes for fear around here.
One thing is for certain: If Bayern lose here, it will go down as one of the great upsets. And Guardiola is determined not to let that happen.
“This game is life and death for the football world,” said Guardiola. “Life and death.”