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Travel-sick Barca play rare role of underdog

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 Lionel Messi of Barcelona

Lionel Messi of Barcelona

Lionel Messi of Barcelona

Even for Barcelona, in their sixth consecutive Champions League semi-final, tonight at the Allianz Arena will be different and unfamiliar.

For the first time in years, they are the underdogs. Bayern Munich, untouchable in the Bundesliga, must be firm favourites at home against a team that, for all their success, have often struggled on the road in Europe.

Since this Barcelona team came into being with the appointment of Pep Guardiola in summer 2008, they have done their best knockout work at the Camp Nou.

Even in their gloriously successful last five years, under Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, their away record is poor. Of their last 14 knockout away legs, since the last-16 ties of February 2009, Barca have won just three.

Of those three wins, only one was particularly meaningful – in a famous triumph at this stage two years ago, Barcelona won 2-0 at Real Madrid.

The other two were certainly less significant – a 1-0 quarter-final win at Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011 after the tie had been thoroughly won in Barcelona, and a breezy 3-1 win at Bayer Leverkusen last February.

The other 11 games have been, more often than not, tight score draws or even defeats.

Barcelona cannot always exert the same control over possession on the road, or play with the same fluency. Or maybe they just trust themselves to do the job at home.

In the last-16 this season, they were well beaten 2-0 in Milan before playing brilliantly to win the second leg 4-0 at Camp Nou.

In the quarter-finals against Paris St Germain, Barca were held to a stormy 2-2 draw away before a one-legged Lionel Messi was summoned from the bench to salvage a 1-1 draw at home which sent them through.

Recent history, then, does not exactly argue for a Barcelona win tonight. Nor does the fact they are facing Europe's form team. Bayern Munich are the first champions of a major league this season, having taken an astonishing 81 points from a possible 90 in the Bundesliga.

BRILLIANT

They were brilliant in their first leg at Arsenal and, although poor in the second, they twice outplayed a very adept Juventus side to win 4-0 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.

Bayern look like a team close to peaking, which makes their potential next season under Guardiola faintly terrifying.

And, after the pain of the Champions League final defeats in 2010 and 2012, there may well be an extra edge to them for the rest of this season.

Former Athletic Bilbao player Javi Martinez has been an exceptional addition, forming the game's most authoritative, powerful engine room alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Their usual midfield partner, the brilliant Toni Kroos, is injured, so coach Jupp Heynckes is likely to call on the pace of Arjen Robben instead.

The Dutchman's direct, blinkered style can look slightly out of place in such a well-developed unit as Bayern but he might be effective tonight.

Barcelona looked uncertain against pace on the break against Milan and Paris and, with Marc Bartra at centre-back, they could be even weaker tonight.

Heynckes has not sought any advice from Guardiola in preparing his team for their biggest game of the season so far.

"I admire Pep Guardiola, but I don't need any advice from other coaches," he said.

"I know my team better than anybody and I also know a lot about Spanish football and Barcelona.

"Bayern are currently playing the most modern, contemporary football in the history of this club," added Heynckes, who has yet to confirm whether or not he will be retiring when his contract expires at the end of June.

"We will not be wasting any thoughts on the failure against Chelsea last year. We have a plan to win the game and reach the final."

Bayern feel that after years of progress, they are ready to look the brilliant Catalans in the eye.

"For many years Barcelona have been the best and the team to beat. But this is a meeting between equals, and we have the right kind of players to hurt Barcelona," said Bayern captain Philipp Lahm. (© Independent News Service)

Bayern Munich v Barcelona,

Live, TV3/ITV1, 7.45

Irish Independent