Bayern vs. Barcelona, Real Madrid vs. Juventus: semifinals preview
Bayern Munich host Barcelona on Tuesday night before Real Madrid welcome Juventus to the Bernabeu on Wednesday in the second legs of their Champions League semifinal ties. Kevin Palmer previews the matches, as Bayern look to overturn a three-goal deficit and Juventus aim to hold on to their advantage.
Have Bayern fallen behind?
The post-mortem into another end-of-season disappointment has already begun in Bavaria, even before Bayern Munich face up to what could be a final indignity in their latest Champions League story. Pep Guardiola's second season as Bayern boss appears to be following the same script he penned in his first campaign, with memories of last year's 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Real Madrid in the semifinal stage of Europe's elite competition revived as his side lost 3-0 to Barcelona in the first leg of this year's last-four encounter.
Is Pep to blame for Bayern's slide from all-conquering European champions to a side that comes up short when it matters most in the Champions League? It is the question being asked in Germany right now. It does not help that the side he inherited from Jupp Heynckes in the summer of 2013 were being tipped for a period of domination in the biggest competition of them all, with the Treble-winning team that enchanted all observers replaced by a side that seems to have lost its edge under the guidance of their acclaimed coach.
Aside from his final season as Barcelona boss, Guardiola could do no wrong in his trophy-laden reign at the Camp Nou, yet despite his success in continuing Bayern's domination of the Bundesliga, his failure to succeed in the Champions League is leading to uncomfortable news conferences from German inquisitors who expect more from Bayern.
"If a team chase three titles, win the league, reach the German Cup semifinal and the Champions League semifinal, then it is a super, super season," said Guardiola as he faced questions last weekend. "How many times did Bayern win a treble? How many. One time? One time, OK. Of course we wanted to win the Treble, but it is still an amazing season."
Trying to reverse a 3-0 first-leg defeat -- provided to Barcelona primarily by the brilliance of Lionel Messi last week -- may be a step too far for injury-hit Bayern, even though their stunning 6-1 win turnaround against FC Porto in the quarterfinals of the Champions League may offer some hope.
Instead, after coming out second best for a fourth successive match as they lost in the Bundesliga against Augsburg last Saturday, Guardiola must be more concerned about being embarrassed on home soil by a Barcelona side who have the potential to inflict plenty more bruises to the Bayern ego -- especially if the home team go chasing the game. Guardiola knows better than most that Barca are the masters of finishing off a wounded opponent when they have them at their mercy.
The golden trio all on fire
Messi may have stolen the show in the first leg of Barcelona's Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich, but the revamped Liga side are far from being a one-man show. Real Madrid's failure to beat Valencia on Saturday edged Barca a huge step closer to the Liga title and they also have one foot in the final of the Champions League after their 3-0 semifinal first leg win against Bayern at the Camp Nou last week.
Barca will also compete in the Copa del Rey final later this month, with the return of the Catalan club to the pinnacle of the game inspired by an attacking trio that are too hot for most of their rivals to handle. Messi has 55 goals to his credit in all competitions this season, Neymar goes into the second leg against Bayern having scored in six successive matches, with Luis Suarez providing as many assists as goals in a fluid attacking formation that has been hailed as one of the best seen in European football.
Between them, Messi, Neymar and Suarez have contributed 119 goals to Barcelona's season so far. If they can push that tally forward a few more notches in the next month, then the trophies their collective talents merit will arrive.
Opportunity knocks for Pogba
Paul Pogba has timed his return to fitness with Juventus to perfection, as the France midfielder is about to be provided with the perfect stage to promote his talents. Pogba's rise from his unsuccessful spell as a rising star at Manchester United to becoming one of the most wanted men in European football will reach a crescendo if he leads Juve into the Champions League final with a stand-out performance against Real Madrid on Tuesday. His side are defending a 2-1 advantage following an intriguing first leg in Turin.
The hamstring injury that kept Pogba on the sideline for the first meeting against the reigning European champions last week has healed in time for him to take his place for the second act at the Bernabeu, giving a global audience the opportunity to judge if the intense speculation surrounding his future has been justified.
Persistent headlines suggest Juventus could expect to receive around £70 million if they sell Pogba in the summer, with Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea among the clubs reported to be eyeing up his services. It does, though, seem like a huge fee for a 22-year-old still seeking to prove himself as a world-class talent. However, with his value at such heights, a summer move may well be inevitable for Pogba, especially if he plays a key role in helping Juventus claim Champions League glory.
Such a prospect seemed improbable heading into this season as, with the exception of Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan in 2010, Serie A clubs have struggled to make an impression in the latter stages of the Champions League over the last seven years. Juventus are threatening to change all that in the next few weeks. Led by the free-scoring Carlos Tevez, Juve will take a 2-1 first-leg advantage with them to the Bernabeu, with Pogba's role at the heart of their midfield pivotal to their hopes of prevailing.
Time for James Rodriguez to stand up
James Rodriguez was the chosen one for Real Madrid president Florentino Perez as he sought to sign his latest marquee name last summer, yet success has not flowed readily for the Colombian in the Spanish capital. The statistics suggest the player who lit up last summer's World Cup finals in such spectacular fashion has not been the shining star of Real Madrid that his £63 million price tag indicated he should be, with 12 La Liga goals in an injury-hit campaign little more than a reasonable return for the 23-year-old.
Fitting him into a team built around Cristiano Ronaldo's talents was always likely to be a delicate issue for Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, yet Rodriguez has the ability to step forward in the biggest of games and make a difference.
"At Real Madrid, I sit a bit further back," Rodriguez said earlier his season. "I feel a bit more comfortable in the position I play for Colombia because I like to play closer to the goal, but as a footballer, I have to be able to stop and create as well."
If Rodriguez could turn in a match-winning display on an occasion such as this, his belated coronation as a Real Madrid galactico would be confirmed.
Kevin Palmer is a sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealKevinPalmer.