History means nothing in the Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich duel
Beware the law of small numbers. Up until the semifinal in Belo Horizonte last summer -- you'll probably remember, it finished 7-1 -- Germany had never beaten Brazil at a World Cup before. They had not even managed a draw against the Selecao, only defeat -- specifically, in their one and only meeting up until then, in the 2002 final in Yokohoma. Brazil won that one 2-0.
When the sample size is so small, it's not a good idea to draw grandiose conclusions. Yes, FC Bayern's record against Barcelona is very, very good -- five wins, two draws, one defeat -- but only eight meetings don't tell us a lot beyond the fact that Bayern happened, largely speaking, to have better teams than the Catalans in 1995-96 (one win, one draw), 1998-99 (two wins) and 2012-13 (two wins).
But definitely not in 2008-09, when Pep Guardiola's men destroyed Jurgen Klinsmann's XI in the first leg of the quarterfinals 4-0 on their way to humiliating Manchester United 2-0 in the final in Rome. Furthermore, Bayern's very good record vs. Barca is even less remarkable if you consider that their record vis a vis most top teams is actually very good.
Ahead of the quarterfinal draw, the only side left in the competition who had a positive record against the Bavarians were Paris Saint-Germain. The French have won four and lost two. But the most recent game was in 2000-01, so what would it have meant now? Nothing at all, really.
Past performance is not a guide to future results. We all know that. Looking back into footballing history can nevertheless be rewarding. Sometimes, one can find patterns and structural factors hidden underneath several layers of of seemingly random scorelines, patterns and factors that might still be relevant pointers today. Secondly, (footballing) history provides context without which the present is often poorly understood.
The infrequent but fairly monumental tussles between the two big FCBs in European football are a perfect case in point. Each meeting can be seen as a crossroads, the point where history was made but also could have just as well gone completely the other way.
But let's see look at the overall record first. One thing you can say for the four meetings with Barca in the '90s was that they fit perfectly into the story that Bayern used to tell of itself in Europe at the time. They were, the argument went, always happier to take on teams who played open, attacking football and left them space to play than, say, the more defensively astute Italians.
Bayern, in those days, were tough to beat, obdurate, quite physical and good at getting the most out of games. You can call it efficient, if you like. All Bayern teams after the 1974 European Cup winners, when German and Bavarian football had reached its creative best, would probably recognise that description.
Yet, a closer look paints a much more complex picture. The 1996 team who went on to win the UEFA Cup after overcoming Barcelona in the semis loved scoring, for a start. Led by Lothar Matthaus and Klinsmann, they had 32 goals in 12 games. Three years later, under Ottmar Hitzfeld, two wins in the group stage in a pretty gung-ho 4-3-3 system told of Bayern's potency at the highest level but it wasn't really indicative of what was to come.
After they had lost the final vs. Manchester United in Barcelona later that season, Hitzfeld retreated tactically. His team ended up winning the trophy with an old-fashioned sweeper system in 2001.
In 2013, Bayern beat Barca with counterattacking football that later became synonymous with Jupp Heynckes' supposedly "direct style" for all those who hadn't seen Bayern play very regularly. In fact, it was a rare departure from the usual, possession-based blueprint that Louis van Gaal's successor had followed throughout his two years in charge. In 2009, Barcelona took full advantage of Bayern having no defensive system to speak of (as well as plenty of injuries) under Klinsmann. It's hard, if not impossible, to find a common topical thread running through these duels.
An examination of the consequences of those games is a bit more productive, however. As Graham Hunter recently explained in fascinating detail, Bayern's 1996 semifinal win marked the end of Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team," and the Dutch coach's reign at the Nou Camp. Interestingly, it marked the end of Otto Rehhagel's time on the Bayern bench after only nine months in charge, too. He was fired a mere 10 days after taking Bayern into the two-legged final.
The club were afraid that the veteran coach had lost the dressing room completely and put Franz Beckenbauer in charge in order to secure a first European trophy since 1976. Bayern then beat Zinedine Zidane's Bordeaux 5-1 on aggregate. The result signaled the beginning of an international renaissance after 20 years without continental silverware.
The 1999 match contributed to Louis van Gaal's downfall a year later (and to Hitzfeld's eventual triumph, if you will) but 10 years later, the repercussions were much more immediately felt. Bayern's capitulation at the Nou Camp in April spelled the end for Klinsmann. The former Germany coach was dismissed less than 12 days later.
Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge now says that Guardiola's football set a benchmark that month that his club decided to emulate. They turned to one of his mentors, van Gaal, for that. The Dutchman's passing game laid the groundwork without which Bayern's return to the European elite since 2010 would probably not have happened. By 2013, Heynckes' treble winners had managed to overtake a Barca team who were in need of a reboot themselves in their first year without Guardiola.
What will the fallout be like this time around? The Bayern coach is arguably under more pressure after last year's washout vs. Real Madrid, but he's at the same time also much more secure in his job than his counterpart, Luis Enrique. Injuries have not only taken away his wingers, but also the favourites tag.
The sample size will be a bit bigger after the second leg has concluded. History will of course also be written, at least in the normative sense: one club will fail, one might go on to win the European Cup again. But beyond that, it's doubtful that we will learn anything more substantial than the respective strengths and weaknesses of these two teams, at this given moment of time. Even that's not a given, though.
So why not just enjoy this classic tie for what it is, and resist the clamour to super-impose a big, special meaning on it? There'll be enough time for football historians to do just that in years to come.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.