FOX Soccer Exclusive
Bayern better than Barca? Believe it
You may think I’m crazy, but you’re wrong. It’s true, Barcelona has been on a tear this season. After having their domestic and European crowns snatched away by Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively, Barcelona has unleashed a giant world of hurt. Led by the machine known as Lionel Messi, Barca has scored a European-best 80 league goals through 24 games.
And that still doesn’t beat what Bayern has done this year.
Bayern, too, went through gut-wrenching losses last season. Beaten for a second straight year in the league and embarrassed in the cup final by rivals Borussia Dortmund, Bayern then let the Champions League trophy slip out of their hands -- at home no less. Arjen Robben’s penalty miss in extra time and the two hundred misses by Mario Gomez prior have haunted the Bayern brass ever since.
Like Barcelona, Bayern has responded with a relentlessly dominant league campaign. Die Roten hold a comfortable 15-point lead over Dortmund and could secure the Bundesliga title at the earliest point in the league’s 50-year history. Tuesday night against Arsenal, FCB finally duplicated its league form abroad, methodically creating chances through one-touch football, seemingly at will, and tracking back as a unit to prevent counter attacks.
Their offense is as daunting as Barcelona’s. Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller, who has replaced Robben on the right wing, are both in devastating form. Mario Mandzukic, who was signed to merely be back-up for Gomez, refuses to stop scoring and has displaced the big German permanently. For those keeping score at home, that means Robben and Gomez have taken seats on a bench that already includes Xherdan Shaqiri and Claudio Pizarro. Last year, Heynckes' alternatives were less thrilling: Ivica Olic and Nils Petersen.
But the secret to Bayern’s resurgence this season has been the defense. Considered their weakness a year ago, Bayern’s backline has given up just seven goals in the Bundesliga – and not a single one after the winter break. New boys Dante and $40 million man Javi Martinez have calmed a nervous and leaky central defense. Manuel Neuer, one of the world’s best goalkeepers, has been idle more often than not.
Barca, meanwhile, don’t look too different from a year ago, and you could make a case that Barcelona has only been so good this season because its opposition, Real Madrid included, hasn’t played up to par. Indeed, La Liga doesn’t come close to the Bundesliga in terms of quality of teams, top-to-bottom, further adding to Bayern’s case. Abroad, Barca was outclassed by AC Milan on Wednesday in a tactical battle the Catalans seemed curiously unprepared for. Whether that was because they missed their manager — Tito Vilanova is recovering in New York from cancer surgery — or had a rare off game, it was nowhere near the championship performance we have come to expect from the Catalans.
But for all the talk, the big question remains: could Bayern actually beat Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Co. head-to-head?
Ask Pep Guardiola. When the creator of Barcelona’s tiki-taka decided to join Bayern Munich at the beginning of next season, it sent a clear signal to the rest of Europe that Bayern is poised to be a major force on the continent for years to come and ready to be mentioned in the same breath as Barca or Real Madrid every season.
It also sent that message to its own players, who have responded to the news with an increased intensity on the practice pitch. Every player is on notice, playing not only for silverware, but for a role in Guardiola’s team next season.
Perhaps nothing is a better indicator of a club’s standing than the quality of its rumored transfer targets. Not too long ago, Bayern’s top signings were under-rated or under-appreciated 'B list' stars such as Luca Toni, Roy Makaay, or even Gomez. To outsiders Bayern was who they were; a great German team, a perennial contender but not a perennial favorite.
Since Pep’s decision, suddenly the world’s most sought after talents, such as Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, even Neymar, are being linked to Bayern. One man who has already agreed to terms, if reports are true, is Dortmund’s star striker Robert Lewandowski. If that transfer goes through, Bayern will not only have made their side even better, but weakened its main rivals at the same time.
Guardiola didn’t sign with Munich because he wanted to bring Bayern up to Barcelona’s level; he knew that this Munich team was already there. Bayern’s deep squad, the stars to come, and a youth system that already rivals Barcelona’s La Masia mean that the 'other' FCB is no longer an afterthought.
Bayern aren't the next big deal. They are already a big deal – and they are arguably the best team in the world right now.
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