By Ben Hayward
It was a tie which neither side would have wanted, but one which could define everything. Barcelona and Bayern Munich were paired together in the semi-finals of the Champions League following Friday's draw in Nyon. At stake is much, much more than just a place in the Wembley showpiece next month.
Barcelona have been the dominant force in Europe over the last few seasons. Semi-finalists for the last six years, winners in 2009 and 2011 (as well as 2006), hailed as the greatest side in history by many and hitting huge heights under Pep Guardiola, the Catalans remain the team to beat, the best footballing side there is.
Yet there has been something of a decline since the departure of Guardiola, with Carles Puyol plagued with injuries, Xavi slowing down and problems on the bench in the absence of Tito Vilanova during his treatment for cancer. Even Lionel Messi has been injured.
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Then, Jose Mourinho's men lost 2-1 to Jurgen Klopp's side in Germany before an entertaining 2-2 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu, when Mesut Ozil rescued a point for the home team with a free kick in the 89th minute.
Dortmund topped the sector as Madrid finished second and Manchester City were eliminted.
Dortmund left it late to knock out Malaga in the last eight and will have the psychological edge after their group results against Madrid. Real, meanwhile, will be looking to end their so-called 'German curse' - they were defeated by Bayern in last year's semi-finals and have suffered many poor results against Bundesliga teams in the past.
Bayern reached the final last season under Jupp Heynckes, but surprisingly lost out to Chelsea. The Munich side, then coached by Louis van Gaal, also finished as runners-up to Jose Mourinho's Inter in the 2010 showpiece in Madrid. The thinking behind Guardiola's appointment is clearly to get the best out a golden generation of players who have slightly under-achieved at the very highest level.
In many ways, Bayern mirror Barca. The Bavarians boast an exciting youth academy, a strong national core and something of a similar footballing philosophy. The club combines an ideal blend of youth and experience, is in excellent shape financially and completely wiped out an excellent Juventus side in the quarter-finals. And with Guardiola set to arrive in the summer, everything seems in place to make Bayern Europe's best.
In the meantime, however, question marks remain over the mental strength of a side which has failed to win as much as it should have in recent years.
Those questions can be answered now. Bayern have responded in style in the Bundesliga after missing out on the last two domestic titles to fellow Champions League semi-finalists Borussia Dortmund, while they can also win the German cup and are on course for a treble if they can claim a continental crown as well.
But the game against Barca represents their biggest test. Win it and Bayern could usher in an era of dominance on the continent similar to the one enjoyed by the Catalans in recent seasons. Lose out and the Blaugrana will remain Europe's dominant force - at least for another year.
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