Bayern Munich host Juventus on Tuesday in the first leg of what is arguably the most exciting tie of the Champions League quarterfinals.
The German giants have steamrolled their way to the verge of the quickest-earned title in Bundesliga history and, following two Champions League finals defeats in three seasons, are now fully focused on claiming Europe's most coveted club trophy.
The Italian champions also have something to prove, having gone a decade without advancing past the Champions League quarterfinals. This marks their first season on Europe's grandest football stage in three years, and, after winning Serie A last season, they now are aiming for international success.
When Bayern and Juve last met, on December 8, 2009, it was no contest. The Turin side entered the game needing just a draw at home to progress to the Champions League round of 16 but threw away an early lead and suffered a blowout 4-1 defeat.
Bayern and Juve have both changed significantly since then in terms of tactics and personnel. The Turin side have adopted a 3-5-2 formation under coach Antonio Conte, and the additions of Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal have given them a very formidable central midfield core. They went undefeated in Serie A last season and are currently frontrunners as they look to win a second consecutive domestic title.
Bayern, too, have changed. In 2009-10, they played Louis van Gaal's variant of the classic Dutch total football, emphasizing possession and shortening the field of play to engage even the center-backs in the attacking buildup. Now, Bayern play a balanced game that includes more stability in defense.
In the back five, Manuel Neuer is of course a lock in goal. Likewise, Philipp Lahm, Dante and David Alaba are obvious starters. The second center-back position is a toss-up between Daniel van Buyten and Jerome Boateng.
Van Buyten, at 35, is ancient and struggles greatly for pace. He offers plenty of experience, however, and is better in the air than Boateng. And at least in the first leg of the round of 16 against Arsenal, the Belgian was magnificent.
Boateng is quicker than Van Buyten but is often guilty of woeful mistakes. He let an ancient and slow Didier Drogba escape from his watch time and time again in last May's Champions League final, and he missed the round of 16 this season due to an inexplicably unnecessary red card in a rout of BATE Borisov.
Bayern have conceded five goals in their last three competitive matches, using Dante and Van Buyten, Dante and Boateng, and Boateng and Van Buyten. No combination has been exactly inspiring as of late, and there is no clear choice. However, in a fast-paced game in which a defender's speed could make the difference between a successful tackle and a goal, Boateng might be marginally the better choice.
Normally, the holding midfield positions would be occupied by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez. The latter is suspended for the first leg, however, meaning that Luiz Gustavo is almost certain to start in his place. The Brazilian has been a rock in the Bayern defensive midfield in the past and will be motivated to prove himself again on the big stage. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is too old to start in such a high-profile game; Emre Can is too young.
The attacking midfield trio is also one that merits little debate. Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller have not yet let Bayern down this season. Arjen Robben had his chance against Arsenal and was woeful; he'll be lucky to start another game this season. Xherdan Shaqiri is another option but for now is decidedly behind the usual starters.
The starter in the center of attack is a bit more of an open debate. Mario Mandzukic has started 26 matches for Bayern this season, scoring 19 goals. The quality of his hold-up play and his work rate have made him Jupp Heynckes' first-choice striker ahead of Mario Gomez, who has only played from the start in seven games.
There is one glaring statistic that mars Mandzukic's record: In the Champions League, he's scored just once in six matches. Even against teams like BATE and Lille, matches in which the Bayern attack otherwise created many chances, the Croatia international struggled.
Gomez has hardly had a chance to show himself this season, but for club he has scored at a rate better than once every 90 minutes played. In the two years prior to the current season, he scored 20 goals in the Champions League. He may be a bit of a nervous wreck at times, but the Germany international is a scorer on a level that Mandzukic will never reach. Gomez must start against Juventus.
Even with Martinez and Holger Badstuber unavailable, Bayern will face Juventus with a very formidable lineup, regardless of Heynckes' selection. Juventus are a strong team with something to prove, though, and Bayern will need their very best available XI if they are to make a strong statement in the first leg.
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