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Bayern Munich were among the pre-season favorites to win the Champions League and their performances in the group stage have only served to shorten their odds. Julian Nagelsmann’s men have been immaculate in Europe so far this season. Ajax and Liverpool are the only other clubs with a perfect record heading into matchday six. Even those two excellent teams cannot match Bayern’s +16 goal difference, nor their remarkable return of 19 goals in their first five matches.
Paris Saint-Germain’s star-studded frontline of Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Kylian Mbappe meant they were widely backed to go all the way before a ball had been kicked this term, but it is Bayern and the top three in England – Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea – who are most fancied to lift the trophy as we approach the end of the group phase. Like the Premier League trio, Bayern have excellent individuals but are also coached in a way that makes the collective more than the sum of its parts.
That has been clear to see in their displays in Group E. On matchday one, Bayern beat Barcelona 3-0 at the Camp Nou without even getting out of second gear. They cruised to 5-0 and 2-1 victories over Dynamo Kyiv and beat a decent Benfica side 4-0 and 5-2.
Tournaments are not won in the group phase and Bayern’s pre-Christmas performances will count for nothing if they lose in the round of 16 or quarter-finals, but right now they are arguably the strongest side on the continent.
Barcelona only won their first European Cup in 1992, much later than the likes of Bayern Munich (1974), AC Milan (1963), Inter (1964), Manchester United (1968), Liverpool (1977), and, of course, Real Madrid (1956). Since then they have accumulated another four Champions Leagues to become the fifth most successful club in the competition’s history. Only their arch-rivals Real Madrid can better Barcelona’s tally of four triumphs in the 21st century.
It would therefore be unthinkable to a young generation of soccer fans for Barcelona to be out of the Champions League before the knockout phase. Even when the Blaugrana suffered some ignominious defeats in Europe in recent seasons, they came deep in the competition: the 8-2 loss to Bayern in 2020 was in the quarter-finals, the 4-0 defeat by Liverpool in 2019 was in the semi-finals, and the 3-0 reverse against Roma in 2018 was also in the quarters.
The last time Barcelona failed to advance beyond the group stage of the Champions League was way back in 2000/01, when a team managed by Lorenzo Serra Ferrer finished third in their group behind AC Milan and Leeds United. Another third-place finish could be on the cards this year: if Benfica beat Dynamo Kyiv in a game that will take place simultaneously, Barcelona will need to beat Bayern to progress to the round of 16.
The Catalans have experienced a slight uptick since Xavi Hernandez replaced Ronald Koeman in the dugout, although it is still too early in the former midfielder’s tenure to draw firm conclusions. A win at the Allianz Arena would be a major statement for the new manager, but Barcelona’s failure to beat Benfica last time out could come back to bite them.
Bayern Munich have earned the right to take it easy on matchday six, but the home team will draw motivation from other sources. For starters, there is a good chance that some fringe members of the squad will be handed an opportunity from the start of the match. An impressive performance from a Bayern player could see him climb up the pecking order going forward.
Bayern also have the chance to maintain their 100 per cent record in this season’s Champions League. Perhaps most significantly, they could in effect knock out a fellow superclub before the knockout stage. Barcelona have plainly declined in recent years, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could go deep in this competition if they make it through to the round of 16. Bayern could eliminate a potential winner by going all-out for victory on Wednesday.
Coronavirus regulations mean the Allianz Arena will not be anywhere near full, and that should play into Barcelona’s hands. But even a rotated Bayern team makes for a formidable opponent and Xavi’s side will have to be at the top of their game to emerge victoriously. A tie is the way to go in this one, which would leave Barcelona crossing their fingers and hoping for a favor from Dynamo Kyiv.
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|Bayern Munich vs Barcelona Information
|Bayern Munich vs Barcelona
|Allianz Arena, Munich, Germany
|Wednesday, 8 December 2021, 15.00 PM EST
|How to watch
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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