It’s been an up-and-down season at Munich under Nico Kovac, his first season as gaffer in Bavaria, but they still managed to find their form in the second half of the season and chased down Dortmund’s table-topping lead at Christmas to win the Bundesliga on the final day of the season.
Though it was even more comfortable than that. A nil-all draw in the penultimate round of fixtures against Leipzig denied them their celebrations of a 29th league title and allowed their closest rivals to take the race to the final Saturday, but only the most optimistic Munich-hater would’ve expected them to flop against Eintracht Frankfurt at home, and Bayern’s 5-1 demolition of their last opponents showed how well-founded that scepticism was.
As the recent draw showed though, this is far from a Munich team at the peak of its powers. Robben and Ribery both scored last week to mark their imminent departures from the German powerhouse, and that’s a sign of a team in transition. Kovac could also leave despite winning the league title as powerbrokers at the club aren’t convinced his style suits a club of Bayern’s stature and Max Allegri is now available. A convincing win in the cup final would at least strengthen his hand heading into an uncertain summer.
Kovac pulled off the trick of toppling Munich in the final last year as manager of Frankfurt, his underdog side harassing and harrying their superior opposition in a 3-1 shocker. Ralf Rangnick’s RB team will need to find some of the resilience and energy here to have a chance.
They’ve relied on their defensive strength largely this season to secure third in the Bundesliga and another Champions League appearance. They conceded just 29 goals, the fewest in the league, and two of those came on the final day against Bremen when third spot was already secured and the manager rested his first team in preparation for the cup final.
Their record of 16 clean sheets in 34 games underlines just how hard to break down they are, but they also scored 63 goals, so they’re capable of taking chances if they arise. There’ll be no room for sentimental run-outs for any or Munich’s departing stars. Sven Ulreich is likely to deputise for Manuel Neuer, while Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry will carry the wide threat as Lewandowski leads the line. Rangnick will bring back the usual starters for Leipzig, with Timo Werner possibly playing game for the club as rumours swirl about his future, and Yussuf Poulsen will support him in attack.
Coman made the difference against Frankfurt last week when Munich needed to win, and I’d expect him to be the source of any threat Bayern can muster against this solid outfit. Leipzig caught a few breaks in their 0-0 meeting a few weeks ago, and didn’t carry much of a threat, so the odds are that Munich can take a chance this time, and if they do, Leipzig will have to attack. They’ve only beaten Munich once in their short history, and I don’t expect them to add to it on Saturday. The champions have the pace and power to capitalise on any slip-ups from the East German side, and Bayern -1 appeals at 7/5.
It’s a similar story in the Spanish equivalent later on Saturday, with the league winners running up against a domestic rival who’ve fought their way back into the Champions League spots for the next campaign.
It’s also a strikingly comparable situation for the coach of the 4/7 favourites Ernesto Valverde. The former Bilbao coach has continued the move away from the Tiki-Taka heyday of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta with Pep as puppetmaster to the more functional, reactive side that has continued to dominate domestically thanks to the moments of magic the best player in the game can provide.
Messi finished this season with 36 goals to secure a third-straight Pichichi crown, and Barcelona finished the season with 37 more than the next highest-scoring side, Real Madrid, along with 11 more points than second-placed Atletico. Crucially though, their collapse at Anfield in the Champions League semi-final has tarnished their fourth title in five years and eighth in the last 11 seasons and has thrown the future of their coach as well as the direction of the club into doubt.
Like Kovac, Valverde could do with all the help he can get. Injuries have struck at an unfortunate time though. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen along with Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele are all expected to miss the meeting in Seville with Valencia. When you’ve still got Messi to call on that may not matter too much, but Barcelona’s form away from the Nou Camp has not been rock solid recently.
They’ve won just twice in their last seven away from home, and goals have been hard to come by in that run too, with the exception of the 4-4 fightback against Villarreal in April when Messi was dragged from a rest game to rescue a point.
Meanwhile, Valencia won their final three games of the season to secure that spot, a hugely significant return for a season that started with just one win in their first 11 league games. It’s an incredible turnaround. Spain striker Rodrigo leads their attack while Dani Parejo pulls the strings in midfield, and crops up with a few goals too. Arsenal showed in the Europa League that they’re not the tightest at the back, though they have coped with Barca’s attack this season, earning two draws in the league meetings this season, 2-2 at the Nou Camp and 1-1 at the Mestalla.
What’s clear from both sides in recent weeks is that there should be goals. While we’re tempted by the 9/2 available on Los Che with Barcelona still rocking after the Liverpool meltdown, the safer choice is Valencia on the Draw No Bet market at 3/1. If it finishes a draw like the previous two encounters, you’ll get to keep your return on Munich, and if Valencia pull off a shock, the double will pay out at 17/2. Lovely.
*All odds correct at time of posting