It might just be the most daunting task Lionel Messi has faced at Barcelona.
The only surviving former winners of European club football’s greatest prize – with five titles each – meet in a heavyweight Champions League quarter-final behind closed doors at the Estadio da Luz.
Barcelona vs Bayern Munich
Venue: Estadio da Luz, Lisbon
Date: August 15, Saturday (0030 IST)
Form Guide: Barca: W-W-L-W-W; Bayern: W-W-W-W-W
Head-to-head record: Matches: 11, Bayern wins: 6, Barcelona wins: 2, Draws: 3
It is not often that Messi’s Barcelona come into such a big European tie as the underdogs, but they are this time, with Quique Setien’s team having lost out to Real Madrid in the Spanish title race while Bayern appeared flawless on the way to winning a German league and cup double.
Messi is now 33, yet Barcelona appear more reliant on him than ever.
He scored twice against Bayern in the quarter-finals in 2009 when Barcelona went on to win the Champions League under Pep Guardiola. He hit four against Arsenal the following year and five against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012 but on both occasions, Barca were favourites.
Messi also sank Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2011 when his double in the first leg of the semi-final, including one of the finest goals the competition has ever seen, transcended a rivalry that had been dragged to its ugliest point.
And he was part of perhaps the tournament’s greatest comeback, the 6-1 destruction of Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 after Barcelona lost 4-0 in the first leg of that last-16 tie.
Yet this time, things seem different.
With Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann alongside him, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets behind him and Jordi Alba out wide, Messi should not be on his own.
Even in defence, Gerard Pique still has a claim to be the best defender in La Liga and Marc-Andre ter Stegen is among the most impressive goalkeepers in the world.
“Bayern are playing really well and are full of confidence but we have the weapons to beat them,” Griezmann told Barca TV.
- Isolated Argentine -
But the sense remains that Messi must perform if Barcelona are to defeat Bayern, widely seen as the favourites to lift the trophy on August 23, at the end of the express knock-out tournament in Lisbon.
It will take something very special not only to lift his own team out of the doldrums but also to neutralise an opponent that many believe are the most complete side in Europe.
Barcelona therefore must first of all hope that Messi shows no ill effects from the ankle knock he suffered in last weekend’s last-16, second-leg win over Napoli – he has been back training normally.
The Catalans should certainly wonder how it got to this point, given they spent more than 500 million euros ($590m) over the last three seasons, bringing in players that should have complemented, not isolated, the Argentine.
The worry is that Bayern might not just beat Barcelona at the Estadio da Luz, but humiliate them.
If they do, Setien is likely to pay with his job, even if he only took over as coach in January, replacing Ernesto Valverde, who was also unable to shake this current crop into life.
The alternative is a statement performance that vindicates Setien, establishes him for next season and sends Barcelona into the semi-finals with the kind of momentum that could even take them all the way.
“We have to be optimistic, we are in good shape,” said Setien after the Napoli game.
However, it would be a surprise to see Barcelona go on and lift the trophy, and it seems unthinkable they could do it without an intervention from Messi, who must be wondering too how the club that won the treble five years ago have come to rely on him so completely.
The challenge is not beyond Messi. But Barcelona must know he deserves more.
The goalkeeper battle
Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen has the chance to advance his claim for Germany’s No 1 shirt when he faces Bayern Munich and their veteran shot-stopper Manuel Neuer.
The 34-year-old Neuer has been Germany captain since Bastian Schweinsteiger retired in 2016.
However, Ter Stegen is itching to usurp him as Germany goalkeeper, but there is not much to separate the pair.
“In several areas that characterise modern goalkeepers, I consider them to be equal,” said Bodo Illgner, Germany’s goalkeeper thirty years ago when Lothar Matthaeus lifted the World Cup at Italy 1990.
The 53-year-old says the pair are similar in their “play on the line, in one-on-ones, their charisma, and even in a penalty shoot-out”.
Illgner believes Neuer has a more commanding presence “as a boss in his own penalty area”.
After years as second choice for Germany, the 28-year-old Ter Stegen, who has made 24 international appearances, finally ran out of patience last September.
He caused a stir by saying he could not understand why Neuer, Germany’s goalkeeper since 2010, remains undisputed first-choice under head coach Joachim Loew.
Bayern’s outspoken former president Uli Hoeness waded into the ensuing debate saying that Ter Stegen had “no right” to claim the position.
Neuer, voted the world’s best goalkeeper for four years straight until 2016, is in the twilight of his career.
Now Ter Stegen has the chance to show who is the best goalkeeper on the Champions League stage.
Neuer has the physical edge as he stands 1.92 metres to Ter Stegen’s 1.87m, and makes every centimetre count when he is bearing down on a striker in the penalty area.
Both ‘keepers also initiate play from their own area.
“Both are great when it comes to being an 11th outfield player. Neuer has been the absolute benchmark in this area, but Ter Stegen has become a bit better than the original,” Illgner said.
Benedikt Howedes, Neuer’s team-mate in Brazil when the Germans won the 2014 World Cup, compares the pair to two giants of the game.
“It’s like comparing (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo - they’re both great,” says Hoewedes, who recently retired.
While critics point to the mistakes Neuer has become susceptible to in recent years, when he occasionally mistimes runs from his box, he enjoys an untarnished reputation in Germany as a world-class goalkeeper.
Such is the faith shown by Bayern Munich that his contract expires in June 2023 – just after turns 37.
Ter Stegen has two years left on his contract, but Barcelona are eager to extend his deal.
Both goalkeepers face world-class finishers on Friday.
Neuer is up against both Messi and Suarez, while Ter Stegen faces the Champions League’s top-scorer Robert Lewandowski, who has 13 goals in seven European matches this campaign.
Bayern midfielder Leon Goretzka, who has played with both for the national team, says Germany is spoiled for choice.
“You can say they are the two best goalkeepers in the world,” Goretzka said Tuesday.
“It’s good to have ‘Manu’ at the back, he brings a sense of security, but Marc-Andre has become world-class.”
Meanwhile, Arturo Vidal has warned Bayern Munich his Barcelona team are the best in the world.
And Barca coach Setien was in confident mood too, insisting Lewandowski is “clearly” not at the level of his captain Lionel Messi.
Their comments come after former Bayern midfielder Lothar Matthaus told German newspaper Bild earlier this week Lewandowski has overtaken Messi as the best player in the world and he no longer fears Barcelona.
Vidal spent three years at Bayern and said on Thursday Barcelona’s opponents should not be complacent. “They are very confident but tomorrow they aren’t playing against a Bundesliga team, they’re playing against Barca and Barca is the best team in the world.”
Asked about the expectation that Bayern will go through, Vidal said: “I get it. We are the best team in the world but in La Liga we haven’t shown it in the last few games. We lost the league but we have Leo, we have other players and if we play well, we can beat anyone.We have to show it in the field.”
Bayern have their own trump card in Lewandowski, who has scored an astonishing 53 goals in 44 games for his club this season. Messi has hit 31 goals in 43 matches for Barca.
“Lewandowski is a great footballer but he is not at the level of Leo, clearly,” said Setien.
“Lewandowski is in great form, he has scored 13 goals in the Champions League and it is true that he is very well supported by many teammates who can also do damage.
“He’s in a great moment but Leo is too. We saw it the other day against Napoli.”
- Messi’s ‘fireworks’ -
Setien also denied Barcelona’s chances are entirely dependent on their captain. “Messi can help win the game, obviously, but I have always believed in the strength of the team,” Setien said.
“You also have to help Messi, give him the ball. He can create his own fireworks but without the strength of the team, Leo would not be Leo, like any player.”
Setien said Ousmane Dembele will be in the squad and could feature but the France World Cup winner is unlikely to start after being out since November with a hamstring tear.
“It’s satisfying for everyone even to have him in the squad and he is in a position to play a few minutes if we need him,” said Setien. “He’s been out for almost a year, it’s true, but we believe he could go out and play well.”
The tie will be a single match in line with the reformed Champions League format from the quarter-finals onwards, with the winner to meet either Manchester City or Lyon for a place in the final on August 23.
(With AFP inputs)