Bayern Munich is listed as slight favorite for the first semifinal game, to be played Tuesday, April 23, at the Allianz Arena, but betting houses throughout the world have installed FC Barcelona as favorite to advance to the UEFA Champions League final. Generally, betting houses know their business, otherwise they will not be in business for long, but this time even Barça fans would be cautious in placing their Euros where their allegiance is. The most recent developments show that for the first time in more than five years Barcelona appears to be the underdog in international competition.
Saturday's La Liga game at the Camp Nou against middle-of-the-pack, modest, Levante was a nightmare. The hosts played this game like it was a punishment, with no interest, no intensity and no inspiration, going through the motions like in a practice with 70,000 paying customers. Fabregas scored the only goal six minutes before the end on a pass from Alexis. It was about the only good thing Fabregas did the entire game.
Others were not so lucky. The much lauded Christian Tello played his worst game ever in a Barça uniform, displaying embarrassing rudimentary technical (in)abilities. If there were hopes that he could be a solution for the future he killed them in a single game. He has speed, but not much else. David Villa instead, who once had all the qualities of a great artilero , looks like he has nothing left. The former goleador missed an early penalty kick (awarded with extreme largesse) and looked slow and out of place. Thiago is not Xavi, and Iniesta, as loved as he is, as genial as he is, couldn't make this makeshift unit work like a credible lineup.
The excuse that maybe they were thinking ahead at the Bayern game is not valid, as most of the starters against Levante (Villa, Tello, Fabregas, Thiago, Song) will be, in the best case, on the bench in Munich. The way they played, they actually eliminated themselves from consideration. The only positive news to report from this game was Abidal's excellent play as central defender (in a defense with four lateral defenders) in his first start after 420 days. We almost forgot how good the Frenchman used to be.
The logical starting lineup for Tuesday's game appears to be: Valdes - Alves, Piqué, Abidal, Alba - Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta - Alexis, Messi, Pedro. Of course, the big question remains: can Messi play? He did not have the medical clearance and was not on the bench against Levante. Perhaps Tito Vilanova did not want to take any chances. Messi has not played since the 28-minute messianic appearance against PSG on April 10, he hasn't played a full game since March 30. He was unstoppable and seemed indestructible three weeks ago, now he's just a big question mark on which Barcelona's fate depends.
But even with Messi close to full potential Barça may still be the underdog. While the Catalans are huffing and puffing, losing steam entering the homestretch, Bayern is capping an amazing season with an incredible display of power, chemistry and brilliance. They eliminated Juventus, 2-0 and 2-0 in CL and are toying with the Bundesliga and the German Pokal , winning by scores of 9-2 (Hamburg), 6-1 (Hannover, Wolfsburg) or 4-0 ( Nürnberg ). Super midfielder Tony Kroos and central defender Badstuber are out with season ending injuries (and leading scorer Mandzukic is suspended for the first game) but Bayern has more interchangeable parts of equal value than any other team, Barcelona included. Right now Bayern looks like an unstoppable Panzer.
They're doing so well under Jupp Heynckes that you have to ask yourself: did they really need Guardiola?
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.
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