[dropcap]P[/dropcap]ep Guardiola’s return to Camp Nou last night heralded a fantastic game of football but not a result the former Barcelona boss would have relished.
Bayern Munich held out against the Catalan powerhouses for 77 minutes, but the brilliance of Lionel Messi and the home side’s attack shone through.
A double by the mercurial Argentine put Luis Enrique’s men in the driving seat ahead of next week’s reverse fixture at the Allianz Arena, while Neymar’s late third all-but ensures his side’s place in the final come June 6.
Here are five key observations from the first leg at Camp Nou.
Bayern’s high line delivers mixed results
Preventing Barcelona’s key attackers from receiving the ball in space is the major objective for every opponent the Catalans face, with few achieving the feat.
Guardiola’s ploy to prevent the likes of Messi and Neymar from running at the Bayern back-line was to crowd his midfield and have the visiting defence play high up the pitch.
Bayern rode their luck in the early exchanges with this tactic, as Luis Suárez should have scored 15 minutes in, while Jordi Alba ran from deep to get in behind Rafinha.
For a high defensive line to work, pressure on the ball in midfield is necessary but was not always present as Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta controlled the boiler room battle.
Bayern looked to have blunted Barcelona by using these tactics, but giving the ball away in costly areas nullified the initial hard work.
Messi’s genius undeniable
Messi’s ability to deliver on the big stage was again proven as the sublime Argentine scored two incredible solo goals to provide the difference.
Having started 2015 on the bench against Real Sociedad, since being reinstalled to the Barcelona team the South American maestro has had a point to prove and undoubtedly been the form player in world football.
With records being broken on a staggeringly frequent basis, Messi continues to confirm his place amongst the all-time greats.
Robben’s absence limits Bayern’s counter-attacking ability
With a narrow three-man midfield, Bayern relied on wide attackers Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Muller to support lone frontman Robert Lewandowski.
However, a lack of pace prevented the visitors from taking full advantage of opportunities to counter-attack the hosts.
Although other important players such as David Alaba and Franck Ribéry were also missing, Arjen Robben’s absence was telling.
Had the Dutch attacker been available, it would have kept Dani Alves more accountable defensively, while also meaning Bayern could pose a more direct threat on the break.
Dani Alves still crucial for Barcelona
Despite the continued presence of transfer rumours linking the Brazilian to other clubs, Barcelona would be foolhardy to allow the veteran to leave.
The defender has been through thick and thin with the Catalan club and continues to be a leader on the pitch and one of the best attacking full-backs in the game.
Last night his link-up play with Messi and combativeness in closing down the opposition had him as a contender for man-of-the-match and reconfirmed his importance to the Barca system.
Barcelona have evolved since Guardiola left
Whether or not the current Barcelona team is better or worse than the one that Guardiola led to glory remains to be seen, but Luis Enrique’s side certainly has evolved into a different beast.
The Spaniard’s side had Xavi in his prime as a midfield fulcrum, with tiki-taka and possession ruling the roost.
Fast forward a couple of years and last night Bayern actually had more of the ball than the hosts, but the presence of Neymar and specifically Suárez has made Barca a more direct threat.
Playing a high line against Barca of old may well have worked to some degree in limiting their space, but this side has newfound pace and flexibility to offer an impressive Plan B.
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