Bayern and Barcelona Champions League rivalry has new twist
A mouthwatering clash of the two "FCBs" looms in the Champions League semifinals as FC Bayern battle FC Barcelona for a place in the 2015 Berlin final.
It's already the hottest ticket in town, with Bayern receiving an unprecedented 271,000 ticket requests before the deadline passed for "Mia San Mia" against "Mes Que un Club."
Pep Guardiola's charges will travel to Spain for the first leg on May 6, with the return in Munich just six days later, the same short turnaround time Bayern enjoyed against Porto.
Of course, it will be an emotional return for Guardiola and Thiago to their former employer. Guardiola acknowledged the inevitability that he would meet his ex-love again at the European top table: "I knew that it would happen sooner or later. It's my first trip back to my home Barcelona. I played and coached there. Obviously it's special for me, Thiago and my staff. I'm delighted and will enjoy the experience. It'll be a fantastic match, but very difficult. Believe me, Barcelona are the strongest opponents."
Bayern, buoyant following their stunning 6-1 comeback victory over pitiful Porto in the quarters, will have the advantage of playing the away leg first in Spain. Thiago, a Barca boy between 2005 and 2013, is already drooling at the prospect. "It will be an honour to play in Camp Nou again," he said excitedly.
No question, Real Madrid or Juventus would have been infinitely more winnable ties. While Barcelona are the toughest opponents left in the competition, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar an exceptionally talented attacking trio, the famous three are only able to hurt you if their team has the ball. My first reaction to the Barcelona draw was to consider whether the Spanish side have the ball-winning skills to feed that dynamic threesome regularly enough over the two legs.
The stats are also very much in Bayern's favour, having lost just once in eight meetings between the two sides since 1996. Otto Rehhagel's Bayern side knocked out Barcelona in the semifinals on their way to lifting the 1995-96 UEFA Cup (the previous iteration of the Europa League). Markus Babbel scored the opener in a memorable 2-1 success at the Camp Nou, with Rafael Nadal's uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, featuring for the Spanish side in defence.
Bayern did the double over Louis van Gaal's Barca in the 1998-99 group stages. Of course, that campaign ended in heartbreak with defeat to Manchester United in, you guessed it, Barcelona. Before that tumultuous final in the legendary Camp Nou, the late, great Freddie Mercury crooned a duet with opera diva Montserrat Caballe -- "Barcelona! How can I forget?" Certainly, that painful 1999 final defeat will forever be etched into the Bayern memory.
Further stats reveal Bayern have never lost to Barca at home in Europe and have won three out of four clashes on the road. However, the solitary away defeat, a 4-0 drubbing in the 2008-09 Champions League quarterfinals, was a real low point in Bayern's history. A Messi brace, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry put Barcelona 4-0 up at half-time, with Bayern playing damage limitation and praying for mercy.
Bayern, under Jurgen Klinsmann's stewardship, were embarrassed by Barca, who went on to lift the trophy with consummate ease under Guardiola's tutelage for the first time. That fateful night in the Camp Nou signalled the end of the road for Klinsmann and he was relieved of his duties just a few weeks later.
You only have to skim through the names on the team sheet that night to see how far Bayern have come in six years. Let's say it was a lineup far removed from the 2015 vintage. We note that Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger both started, but look at the rest of the Bavarian crew on display. Massimo Oddo and Christian Lell both took their place in the starting lineup (who?), while Andreas Ottl and Jose Sosa got the nod as substitutes instead of Philipp Lahm or Holger Badstuber. The mind is boggled.
Bayern will have much fonder memories of the most recent meetings during Jupp Heynckes' farewell season in 2013. The record German champions gave the Spanish giants a 7-0 aggregate schooling in the semis, cruising to victory by four in Munich and adding another three away. To rub it in, it's the biggest overall victory in a Champions League semifinal.
Post-Porto, Pep's own treble dream is still very much alive, and if the Bavarian giants come close to recapturing that stunning midweek form on a regular basis, it would be anything but a pipe dream for Guardiola to emulate Heynckes' feats and march to a historic trio of titles in Berlin.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.