Two giants of European football face each other in what promises to be the most exciting and evenly poised quarterfinal in this year’s Champions League. Bayern Munich have been on the losing end of two of the three latest finals of the competition and are once again considered amongst the favourites for the trophy, while the Old Lady is a resurging force on the European stage after years of absence.
The two clubs have participated in 16 European Cup/Champions League finals between them, winning six (Bayern four, Juventus two), so historically – as well as on current form – a veritable Clash of Titans awaits.
After seeing Jürgen Klopp’s young and dynamic Borussia Dortmund side beating them to the domestic title two years in a row, apparently Bayern decided that this silliness must end and are now on course for yet another Bundesliga title with an all but insurmountable lead in the table. Jupp Heynckes’ men have been unstoppable so far, and nothing suggests they are to ease their grasp on the home front.
On the international stage, Bayern – apart from an unexpected defeat to Belarus minnows BATE Borisov – more or less cruised out of the group stage of this year’s competition along with Valencia in what turned out to be something of a two team race between the Spanish and German sides, in which the latter ultimately prevailed to secure top spot, leaving BATE and Lille in their wake.
After outplaying Arsenal at the Emirates (3-1) in the first game of the round of 16, FCB got something of a scare as the Londoners managed to beat an unfocused and perhaps already further dreaming Germans 2-0 at the Allianz Arena, the Stern des Südens (Star of the South) ultimately winning the tie by virtue of the away goals rule.
While Juve have the (slight) upper hand historically against the Germans, the latest encounter between the two does not hold good memories for the Bianconeri, as Bayern’s 4-1 win in Turin back in 2009 signalled the beginning of a slide that saw the initial swift progress made after being demoted to the second tier following the controversial “Calciopoli” scandal of 2006 halted, and ultimately result in a 2011/12 season without European football at the newly inaugurated Juventus Stadium.
However, there was much else to cheer about for Juventus in their new home, as freshly appointed coach and former club Captain, Antonio Conte, guided his team through a historic unbeaten season, securing the first league title since 2006. This meant once more entering the biggest stage of Europe this season, and after a somewhat shaky start, drawing their first three games, the Old Lady beat off any remaining rust by winning against all of 4-0 FC Nordsjælland, 3-0 Chelsea and 0-1 Shakhtar Donetsk in their last three games to secure first spot in a tricky group.
While the aggregate 5-0 scoreline may have overly flattered Juventus in their last 16 tie with Celtic, the convincing manner in which the Glaswegians were dispatched of spoke volumes of a team (and a coach) not satisfied with merely being back in Europe, but hungry for the wins, glory and prestige so sorely missed in Turin in recent years.
Even with Pep Guardiola’s shadow looming large (the immensely successful former Barcelona guru has already been confirmed as the coach of Bayern for next season), it is hard to put a finger on the work of current manager Heynckes, who has had his team performing almost to perfection so far.
Commanding a frankly scary roster of German superstars, enhanced by foreign such in shape of Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben (when fit and selected), Javi Martinez and Mario Mandžukić, the veteran coach has overseen what is hitherto already a historic season for the red and white club: Bayern lead the stats table on all fronts; most goals scored, fewest conceded, ball possession, pass completion, etc. etc. In short: This is a formidable team.
Heynckes has carried on a dominating, yet direct style of football, which is not too dissimilar to the one displayed by the German national team, which, unsurprisingly, has a back-bone made up of players from the Munich club. The formation is typically a modern 4-2-3-1, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Martinez/Gustavo anchoring a fearsome midfield with three attack-minded players (Ribery, Kroos, Müller – with Robben or Shaqiri as deputies) behind one of the lethal Marios; Mandzukic or Mario Gomez up front. The full backs provide plenty of width with the brilliant Philip Lahm and upcoming talent David Alaba each being a handful on the right and left side respectively.
The one area where Bayern perhaps do not possess world-class depth is central defence. But although these positions have been singled out for criticism this season especially in European games, it is (much like the talk of Juventus lacking a clinical striker) both true and blatantly not so: while individual plays evidence that something might be missing, the overall records prove that business is generally taken well care of. It remains, however, one of precious few concerns for Heynckes ahead of this match.
As an antithesis to Bayern’s perceived troubles in that respect, Juventus’ back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini forming the basis of Conte’s 3-5-2 formation have been impeccable in Europe this season. Having not conceded a goal in the last five Champions League games, this defensive trio, along with an in-form Gigi Buffon between the sticks have transmitted an invaluable sense of calm to the rest of the team.
In central midfield, Conte can count on the triumvirate of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. An MVP-block, which is no less accomplished than the BBC-unit behind them, and whose performances this season has led to them being mentioned in the same breath as their colleagues in Barcelona and indeed Munich. The wing-back roles are usually covered by Ghanaian Kwadwo Asamoah and the “Swiss Express” Stephan Lichtsteiner, tirelessly patrolling the left and right flank respectively.
Up front, Mirko Vucinic is the only forward consistently playing when fit for Juve. All of Sebastian Giovinco, Fabio Quagliarella and Alessandro Matri have been in and out of the starting eleven this season, and frankly, it is anyone’s guess who will partner the Montenegrin up front in Munich.
There has even been speculation that Conte might try playing Marchisio in a more advanced role in order to make room in midfield for French prodigy Paul Pogba, who has been sensational after his arrival from Manchester United in the summer. Such a move would change the system slightly to a 3-5-1-1/3-6-1 formation with Vucinic (or possibly Matri) as a lone striker, which could make sense in a tough an away game such as this.
On the other hand, Conte has been very reluctant to tinker with the formation so far this season, so any change – even a small one – seems somewhat unlikely.
Assuming a fit squad, the only remaining question would be the left wingback spot, where Asamoah has been somewhat underperforming since his return from the African Cup of Nations, which could see January acquisition Federico Peluso overtake his starting berth.
There are few guarantees in football, but that this will be an intriguing game is about as close to being one as you’re likely to come across. Bayern may have the upper hand regarding Champions League experience, home advantage and perhaps slightly better overall quality. On the other hand, Conte’s Juve is a well-oiled, defensively solid machine, which has the crucial ability to both dominate games and – as has been showcased in recent European games and could be essential to this match in particular – to adopt a more pragmatic and cautious approach that seems alien to most of the top clubs on the continent presently.
However, it remains to be seen whether the Old Lady will be able to stand firm facing a team with the ferocity, skill and pedigree of FC Bayern. After all, one might argue that Juventus have not faced competition such as this since their latest, disheartening meeting with the German giants. But then again, the Bianconeri have not been a team to crumble under real pressure of late, and one vital away goal could well mean the difference in a tie such as this.
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for a Big One!