Messi, Ribery, Lahm

Even if Bayern Munich are the finest footballing machine we’ve seen in a very long time, it’s hard to think of anyone as clear favorites against a Barcelona team that has the best footballer in the world playing for it, although if he doesn’t, it might mean everyone needs to recalculate their predictions.

And that’s the thing Barcelona are trying to find out – can Messi play? Should he play? Because even with him, Barcelona still haven’t won an away match in the knockout stage. A 2-0 loss that signaled to everyone the empire is gone against AC Milan (only to be back from the dead in the second leg with a 4-0 thrashing), and a 2-2 draw in Paris, which probably should have ended in a win.

But there are more troubling things for Barcelona to worry about than just Messi, especially their defense, which didn’t concede a goal in their last two wins. Gerard Pique hasn’t been playing too well all season, and while Marc Bartra seems to be a decent choice to use beside him, Barca usually opt for Adriano, who is simply terrible when he plays in the center of defense. “Luckily” for them, the Brazilian is suspended and cannot take a part in the match.

And then there’s the midfield, and how good Xavi will be. It seems that the real barometer for Barcelona’s success has been how well Xavi performs, and not the occasional brilliance of Andres Iniesta or the up & down form of Cesc Fabregas, the spare part in Barca’s attack, moved around according to need, obviously affecting his ability.

On the other side, the absence of Mario Manduzkic and Toni Kroos is worrying for Bayern, who might be one of the deepest teams in European football, with the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez stepping in, but that’s exactly the difference from this season to the previous one – Robben coming off the bench and not being a regular starter, and the same goes for Gomez, who might be as good of a goalscorer as Manduzkic, but can’t contribute to the overall game like the Croatian.

The big key for Bayern will be making the most of Dani Alves and Jordi Alba’s trips up front, which Barcelona will need to time well in order to make sure they don’t over expose themselves and keep Sergio Busquets and Xavi focused on attack instead of covering for wayward fullbacks. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been part of frustrating matches against a Spanish team that is built on the Barcelona philosophy and midfield. Not allowing Barcelona the same kind of dominance and possession they’re used to, instead applying the kind of pressure and pace, with a little bit of caution, similar to their home leg against Juventus, will do them a world of good.

Prediction – With Messi, Barcelona are equals, although not the better side. Without him? Bayern Munich have the clear edge, in any case and personnel. How does this end? A win for Bayern, but a slight one, leaving us all quite attentive to the second leg. A 2-1 German win sounds about right.