A mouth-watering quarterfinal fixture headlines the Champions League Elite Eight as German frontrunners Bayern Munich tangle with Italian table toppers Juventus this week. Die Roten are only three points away, from wrapping up the Bundasliga title, after a 9-2 thrashing of Hamburg over the weekend. Meanwhile La Vecchia Signora sit 9 points clear of second place Napoli in Serie A, following a critical 2-1 result over Inter Milan.
In European competition, both sides topped their respective groups, but had different paths in the knockout stage. Juventus were first-class in their battering of Celtic, while Bayern were fortunate to escape against Arsenal, after a poor second leg performance.
Bayern skipper Jupp Heynckes deploys a 4-2-3-1 formation and perhaps no one in the world uses the 4-2-3-1 more aptly than Bayern. The decision will be who will start as the lone striker for Heynckes squad. Both Mario Mandzukic and Mario Gomez were rested over the weekend, giving Heynckes some options. Mandzukic does lead the club with 18 goals in all competitions, so it is likely he will be on the team sheet. Gomez has battled injuries all season, but don’t be surprised if he sees time on the pitch, especially if Bayern are in desperate need of a goal.
The attacking midfielders are just as much of a threat as the strikers. Thomas Muller has had a wonderful season for Bayern, netting 16 goals in all competitions. Toni Kroos has been sublime working the centre of the pitch, while Franck Ribery remains a talismanic figure. If all else fails, Dutch International Arjen Robben can come in to bring pace along the flank.
The suspension of Javi Martinez does leave a small hole in the defensive midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger may sit back to offset the absence of the Spaniard. Luis Gustavo is set to replace Martinez as the second holding midfielder.
The back four has laboured at times, but are poised for a rebound performance. Philipp Lahm is still one of the purest defenders in the world, and can play either left or right back. Belgian International Daniel Van Buyten and Brazilian International Dante are expected to be on the teamsheet as centre backs. Austrian International David Alaba is slated to start at left back. If Bayern is ahead in the match, Jerome Boateng could see time on the pitch as well.
Keeper Manuel Neuer hasn’t had his best season, but is still highly rated as one of the best between the sticks. Neuer will need to be focused as Juventus are a dangerous side that can attack from various points.
Juventus manager Antonio Conte is unique in that he favours a 3-5-2 formation. Relying on midfielders being in proper position at all time, Conte has seen his side concede the fewest goals in Italy, as well as conceding the fewest goals of the eight teams remaining in Europe.
That doesn’t mean Juventus won’t attack. With the likes of Alessandro Matri, Fabio Quagliarella and Mirko Vucinic up front, Juventus do have efficient finishers that pose problems for defenders. Vucinic did miss the Inter match due to illness, but has said he is ready to go. Quagliarella leads the club with 12 goals in all competitions but early reports suggest he will start on the bench for The Old Lady.
The one certainty in midfield is Andrea Pirlo. A sublime passer who can control the match from the centre of the pitch, Pirlo is showing no signs of slowing down, despite his “advanced age”. While Pirlo is 33 years old, he has the fitness of someone 10 years his junior. Arturo Vidal is another wondrous playmaker with splendid ball skills. The Chilean International also brings pace and versatility, as he can be utilized either along the flank or the centre of the pitch. French International Paul Pogba, Ghana International Kwadwo Asamoah and Claudio Marchisio are expected to be the remaining starters in the midfield. Marchisio is an excellent holding midfielder who can drop back to a defender spot if need be.
The back is bolstered by the return of Giorgio Chiellini. Considered one of, if not the best centre back in the world, Chiellini missed the two fixtures against Celtic, due to a knee injury. His return solidifies a stern fortress in the back. Leonardo Bonucci is no slouch either. Bonucci isn’t afraid to push forward and with Chiellini’s return, Bonucci may take more chances. Andrea Barzagli is the unheralded member of the back, but he is as uncompromising as they come.
Gianluigi Buffon is still one of the best keepers in the world. The longtime Italian goalie holds everything together for Juventus, and is expected to see plenty of shots come his way.
Many thought this fixture would be in the final. Instead, these two wonderful sides are battling to see who goes through to the semi-finals. Even though Bayern thrashed Hamburg, I wonder if there most recent European tie against Arsenal will come back and haunt them. Bayern were fortunate to escape but a similar performance against Juventus will leave them wanting. Meanwhile Juventus have something to prove. Feeling as they’ve been overlooked in favour of Bayern and Barcelona, Juventus are playing with passion and authority. Juventus will get a draw at Allianz, then record a victory in Turin to go through to the Final Four.
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