Bayern have been hit by a series of injuries to key players. David Alaba, Mehdi Benatia and Arjen Robben are definitely out with knee, hamstring and hip injuries respectively. Robert Lewandowski broke his nose and jaw in the Cup defeat to Borusssia Dortmund last week but insists he will be available. Franck Ribery and Juan Bernat are both doubts with ankle problems, while Bastian Schweinsteiger has been suffering from illness. Javi Martinez, though, did return from his knee injury to take his place in the back four against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.
Barca have a full squad to choose from, with the exception of the perennially injured Thomas Vermaelen.
Barcelona lead La Liga by two points with three games of the season remaining. Their 8-0 demolition of Cordoba on Saturday followed a 6-0 thrashing of Grenada the previous week, and they’ve won 10 and drawn one of their last 11 league matches. The victories over Manchester City and PSG in the last two rounds of the Champions League have been emphatic.
Bayern followed up last week’s penalty shoot-out defeat against Dortmund in the Cup semi-final by losing to Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday with what was largely a second-string side, but the Bundesliga title has long since been sewn up. They were well-beaten 3-1 by Porto in the first leg of their semi-final as defensive errors were compounded by a strangely insipid attacking display, but they more than made up for it with a 6-1 victory in the second leg. The sides last met in 2013 when Bayern thrashed Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League semi-final.
BARCA’S FRONT THREE
If both teams were at full strength, there would probably be only four changes each from their meeting in the semi-final two years ago. The biggest of those changes is probably to Barcelona’s front three. There was some scepticism when Luis Suarez was signed to complement Neymar and Lionel Messi but since Christmas they have found an understanding and are now capable of devastating combinations.
Suarez, in particular, has been in lethal form of late. The three stars, though, have meant a modification to Barcelona’s approach. From being an astonishingly integrated whole, Barca’s approach is now increasingly to get the ball to the front three and see what happens. They don’t press as hard as they once did: in Pep Guardiola’s last season at Barca, his front three of Messi, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez regained the ball on average 5.0 times per game; Messi, Suarez and Neymar win it back 3.2 times per game.
There is probably no other manager at the top of the game so prepared to modify his approach to the opposition as Guardiola. He has his basic style, but he will change the deployment of players according to each individual game, often making radical switches within games. There’s nobody who knows this Barcelona side as well as he does, so it’ll be fascinating to see how he combats it.
Although Barca don’t press anywhere near as much as they used to, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him try to bypass their midfield by playing a more direct style. That, obviously, is made harder if Lewandowski is out, but he could use Javi Martinez – as he did against Dortmund last season – or Bastian Schweinsteiger, as a centre-forward with Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze playing just off him.
The wisdom for years has been that the way to attack Barcelona is to get behind their full-backs – exploiting the way Dani Alves and Jordi Alba push forwards and then get crosses into the box to try to make the most of Barcelona’s vulnerability in the air at the back.
Bayern, though, as well as having problems at centre-forward, also have a lack of width with Robben out and Ribery extremely doubtful. They got round that in the quarter-final win over Porto by using Lahm almost as a left winger, but the issue is compounded by Lewandowski’s injury.
The many injuries suffered by Bayern added to the fact that, like last season, focus has perhaps drifted with domestic issues settled, gives Barcelona a clear edge, which is why they are as short as 1.72.
The question, really, is how you can squeeze some value out of that. Barcelona -1 on the Asian line is 2.28 but that is probably less tempting than for Barca to be leading at both half-time and full-time at 2.60.
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