[This is a Champions League semi-final preview of Bayern vs Barcelona. For Dortmund vs Real Madrid, click here]
The change of guard is probably here. As the players step onto the pitch and listen to that Champions League anthem, they will know that the shaking of hands that follows may very well symbolise the passing on of the baton.
Bayern Munich are most certainly the next kings of Europe. It is they who look most likely to dominate Europe in years to come the same way Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona did. As such, Guardiola himself seems to acknowledge – he will be coaching the Bavarian side as from next season.
Bayern come up against a wounded Barcelona. In this impressive six year consecutive run of semi-final appearances in the Champions League, never have they looked as vulnerable as now. Certainly, not since 2008 has a Barcelona side looked so capable of being knocked out.
Unlike in 2008 where it was a differing of egos between Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o that so divided a brilliant side, this time it is fatigue that seems to be taking its toll. That is logical, as since 2008, the core of this Barcelona team has been involved in virtually every tournament available for club and country.
Adding onto that though is the sense that finally, time may have caught up with the team worthy of being considered the greatest ever. That all good things eventually come to an end, and that now is the end for Barcelona. They have dazzled with their brilliance to the point where they can dazzle no more, and that has brought about the predictability that allows teams to know how to play against them.
Certainly, that dazzling style of theirs seems to have been picked up by Bayern in their quest to become the greatest. That may have formed a fundamental reason for Guardiola in picking them ahead of the riches of Chelsea and Manchester City, or the tradition and allure of AC Milan.
And now, it seems as if the tired master is ready to give way for the expert pupil.
Such handovers usually happen with the prodigy outshining his mentor. Bayern may thus feel that this is the time to signal their ascent — by getting rid of Barcelona.
And why not? This Bayern side has enough quality to do so. And enough experience. The lessons of last season were learnt where three trophies were lost at the end. That has meant that this season has seen them determined not to fall at the finish line of the marathon, but fall first at the end of the decathlon.
How close both Milan and PSG got in attempting to eliminate the Catalan side will also give Bayern hope. That Barcelona almost stumbled, were shivered by Milan and shaken by PSG seems to suggest that a more balanced, experienced side may knock them out.
But, one factor still remains and thus determined why Barcelona still remains in this competition.
Lionel Messi, on both occasions, rose to deliver them. That even a hamstrung Messi was able to prove the major difference between elimination and progress is testament to just how difficult it is to practically do away with this Barcelona side.
They may be vulnerable, but they are certainly not weak.
And not only Messi. It is the players around him who react accordingly and appropriately in the presence of the Argentine to ensure that Barca keep going through. That brings the ultimate conclusion that no matter what may be against this Barcelona side, the quality they possess means that it is virtually impossible to completely ignore them.
For many have signalled the end for them before, yet here we are seeing them participating in a Champions League semi-final. None has yet been correct in their dismissal of them.
What is certain however is that whatever happens, one era will come to an end while another will begin. In doing so, each club can take parallels from the other’s previous history.
For if Barcelona win this and eventually go on to lift the trophy, it will resemble that great Bayern Munich side of 1976 that despite all their quality were obviously having the wheels falling off. Yet, they still had the momentum to go ahead and barely just win the European Cup for the third year in a row – the last such feat of its kind.
Bayern on the other hand will remember how in 2009, it was that Andres Iniesta goal in the final minute of a semi-final at Stamford Bridge that effectively started the Barcelona dominance that is now dwindling. If Iniesta never scored that we would have never witnessed a side so escalate to the heights that we have seen in recent years. If Bayern do not win this, we might never fully see the full potential of this side.
Yet, Bayern still remain the better placed in as far as the future is concerned. Barcelona will most definitely go into a period of transition. So too, within the Spanish capital will Real Madrid. Bayern may thus remain the best placed of the most elite of Europe’s club sides to be in some form of stability. As such, the confidence boost from a win here will go a long way.
And as the changing of the guard looms, it seems that of the two semi-finals, this is the most precariously placed, ready to have the most lasting of consequences. Indeed, far from that, for both these sides, this is the chance to win the Champions League for the fifth time in history. That of course means, carrying home this particular trophy for good.
The last time that happened was in 2005 as Liverpool won their fifth European Cup. The next immediate season, Barcelona won the Cup, meaning that for this particular trophy, it is their name that is etched first. How they would love it if it were also etched last.
For that however, they need to deny a Bayern who also have the same determination.
Thus change is in the air. With Real Madrid also aiming for a tenth title (and thus a second trophy for them to keep to themselves), there will be a new trophy next season. However, what this semi-final shows most is that the change that will occur is in an old force leaving and a new one taking over.
[If you really, really, really want to read a preview of the other semi-final between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, click here]