Pep Guardiola was hired by Bayern Munich to win not only the Bundesliga, Germany's premier league, but also the Champions League, the prestigious and lucrative tournament in which the Bavarians like to test themselves against Europe’s best.
He has won the Bundesliga in both of his seasons in charge, but lost last year to Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals.
Now, Mr. Guardiola faces Barcelona in this year’s semifinals. It’s the club where, as a player, he commanded the midfield with his ability to maintain possession, pass precisely and see two or three moves ahead. It's also the club where, as a coach, he won 14 titles, including two Champions League trophies. His win rate as a coach was an impressive 70 percent.
“It’s great to be back, but now I’m the coach of Bayern,” said Mr. Guardiola in a pre-match press conference in Barcelona. “I’m here to win.”
Beating Barca at home or anywhere at the moment won’t be easy. This year’s Barca team is a goal-scoring machine. The trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar has knocked in 108 goals so far this season, six alone in last weekend’s 8-0 thrashing of Cordoba.
It’s great to be back [in Barcelona], but now I’m the coach of Bayern. I’m here to win. Pep Guardiola,, Bayern Munich Coach
“It’s difficult to find weaknesses with talent like that,” Mr. Guardiola said, adding that controlling Argentinian Mr. Messi in particular is next to “impossible.”
Bayern Munich, by comparison, enters the first of the two-leg Champions League semifinals after losing to Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 on Sunday and stumbling on Tuesday in the German Cup semifinals, losing in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to Borussia Dortmund.
Those two losses hurt, but not nearly as much as the loss of a four key players who were crucial to the game against Barcelona.
Striker Arjen Robben, fresh from recovering from a five-week injury, limped off after just 15 minutes in the game against Dortmund due to a new injury, which will sideline him for the rest of the season. Defender Holger Badstuber, who celebrated his return this season from back-to-back cruciate ligament ruptures, was injured again in the same game. Midfielder Frank Ribbery and forward David Alaba have been on the sick list for months.
Whether striker Robert Lewandowski will start after suffering a fractured upper jaw and nasal bone against Dortmund is still unclear but highly likely. Bayern needs him. Mr. Lewandowski has played in all ten of the club’s European matches and scored in five of them. He has been practising with a mask and tweeting over the past couple of days that he can hardly wait to play.
Bayern Munich isn’t looking for any excuses with its injured players but it is a walking infirmary. At least six players have been unavailable on every day of the season. The entire squad hasn’t been injury-free since Mr. Guardiola took over as head coach in June 2013.
The casualty list has frustrated the trainer, who has looked for scapegoats and found one – Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt. The iconic figure on the Bayern bench quit as team doctor after being blamed indirectly for the long injury list after a Champions League defeat at Portuguese side Porto.
But not everyone thinks Bayern's sizeable contingent of walking wounded will be a problem. “Of course, Bayern has a chance against Barcelona,” Joachim Löw, the head coach of the German national team, told the German newspaper Bild. “Even if Barcelona appears to be in better form at the moment, Bayern still has, despite the injuries, enough top players to handle it."
If dealing with injuries weren’t enough, the Bayern coach must soon start preparing for a generational change in the squad. That could prove to be a daunting challenge.
Of course, Bayern has a chance against Barcelona. Joachim Löw,, Coach of the German National Soccer Team
When Mr. Guardiola took over as head coach at Barca, he had the key players he needed to build a hugely successful team. But when it came time to replace these aging players, he resigned.
The Spaniard faces a similar situation in Munich. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Xabi Alonso, Mr. Ribery and Mr. Robben are over 30 and the Brazilian Rafinha will soon join them. With the exception of Mr. Alonso, all of them have become prone to injury and their days of competing at the highest level of European soccer are numbered.
As he forms a new team, Mr. Guardiola may look to Spain for help. He has shown a preference for Spanish players, especially those like Thiago Alcantara who have risen through the ranks of La Masia, Barcelona’s famous academy. Including Mr. Alcantara, the squad has five Spaniards: Xabi Alonso, Juan Bernat, Javi Martinez and goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
But Bayern likes to have a core number of players who are from Bavaria, in addition to a few other top German players with whom fans can identify. Thomas Müller, Mr. Schweinsteiger, Mr. Lahm and Mr. Batstuber fit the Bavarian bill to a tee. And fans have taken to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who hails from Gelsenkirchen, defender Jerome Boateng, from Berlin, and even Mario Götze, who was acquired from rivals Borussia Dortmund but has been out of form recently and could be on his way out.
The new generation will have to be fast, versatile and intelligent players who understand Mr. Guardiola's tactics – Barca’s pass-and-move, tiki-taka fast-track style of play, mixed with Bavarian power and unpredictability.
But first, the Spanish coach needs to beat his former club, using all the tactics he learned in Barcelona together with the new tricks he’s picked up in Munich.
“We absolutely need a goal," Mr. Guardiola said at the end of the press conference in Barcelona. "It will be almost impossible to reach the final without a goal here."
Bayern Munich goes into the game as the underdog. But underdogs are known to bite.
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. He has seen Barca play at home in the Nou Camp stadium, which seats nearly 100,000 people. They're the team's powerful "twelfth player." To contact the author: [email protected]