Bayern Munich play host to Juventus on Tuesday in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinals tie. The matchup is perhaps the most tantalizing head-to-head in the last eight of Europe's elite club competition, with the two sides desperate to claim the trophy for the first time in over a decade.
Both clubs lead their respective domestic leagues as the home stretch of the season begins and can focus heavily now on success on the international stage. After struggling early in their European campaign, Juve have hit peak form and dismantled the likes of Chelsea and Celtic en route to the quarterfinals. They still have something to prove against Europe's very elite clubs, however, and now will look to make a statement against a Bayern side that reached two Champions League finals in three seasons.
Bayern survived a scare against Arsenal in the Round of 16, edging the Gunners on away goals after winning 3-1 in London. Despite sometimes struggling in the current European campaign, they have experience on their side and have beaten some elite sides in recent years.
Both Bayern and Juve are undeniably strong sides, and small details might make the difference in the two-legged tie. Click "Begin Slideshow" for analysis of the factors that could Bayern Munich through to the semifinals.
Fan culture in Germany is and has long been superlative in Europe. Average Bundesliga attendance last season was 44,293, nearly 10,000 higher than in the English Premier League and vastly superior to any other figure in Europe's other leagues.
When Juve enter the Allianz Arena on Tuesday, they will be greeted by a crowd of 67,812 (standing room is not permitted in the Champions League, hence the decrease from 71,000). This figure is more than nearly any they have faced all season, and much more than they are used to in weekly play.
While it's almost certain that both legs of Bayern vs Juve will sell out, the average attendance figures say something for the fervor of fans. It takes dedication for supporters to turn out to watch such a successful team play against a lesser side like Furth or Hoffenheim.
Bayern fans are extremely committed; perhaps twice or more as much (demand is unknown due to there being sell-outs in every game) as Juve supporters. If all else fails, the atmosphere in Munich just might be enough to put Bayern into the semifinals.
Tactics could make all the difference on Tuesday, and based on style of play, serious questions must be asked of Juve's ability to play on the wings.
The Italian giants play in a 3-5-2 formation, meaning that only Stephan Lichtsteiner and one of Kwadwo Asamoah or Federico Peluso are formally deployed on the wings. None of the Juve wide players is established as a world-class star in either attack or defense. And in Serie A, there are few wingers of high class who could test either.
Bayern have an extremely strong quartet on the wings. Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller need no introduction: The former has been the driving force of the Bavarians' attack for several years, while the latter is not only prolific, but an X-factor whose winning mentality can decide games. Muller was joint-top scorer at the 2010 World Cup and scored in the Champions League final last May.
Behind Ribery and Muller are Philipp Lahm and David Alaba. Lahm, the captain of his club and of Germany, is in the midst of the best season of his career. And without an attacking winger to pin him back, he can freely move forward to deliver the ball as he so brilliantly has this season; his nine assists are exceeded only by Muller among the Bundesliga's leaders.
Alaba, meanwhile, is perhaps the best young left-back in Europe at only 20 years of age. A year ago he performed brilliantly against Real Madrid's Angel di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo, proving his quality at the highest level.
Juve will have a disadvantage in wide areas in terms of both class and numbers and in all likelihood will be stretched as central players come to aid the wingers. If Bayern play the ball quickly, they have a big tactical advantage.
Juventus' revival in recent years has been primarily the product of their midfield, which is among the strongest in Europe.
Since signing Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal in 2011, the Turin side have been able to control the flow of play in most games, balancing attack and defense with aplomb. Even so, Bayern have a superior midfield.
To compare the two teams, it's first important to distinguish the most important areas of midfield. Juve's wingers, Stephan Lichtsteiner and either Kwadwo Asamoah or Federico Peluso, are primarily defensive players by nature. They are used in roles more defensive than in midfield, giving support for the centre-backs.
Bayern wingers Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller are also less vital to a midfield discussion; the pair play primarily as support men in attack. Toni Kroos is a bit more versatile and is integral to the Bavarians' possession game in midfield.
The primary comparison between the Bayern and Juve midfields is between Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo (the now-suspended Javi Martinez swapping in place of Gustavo for the second leg) and Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio.
In function, if not style, Schweinsteiger and Pirlo are most comparable. Pirlo has had a tremendous resurgence of form since joining Juve, but his age may pose a problem. The veteran turns 34 in under two months and is not used to facing pressing teams in Serie A.
In the first leg of the Round of 16 against Celtic, Pirlo was effectively nullified by the Scots' pressing midfield before an opener that followed a calamitous error in defense. Juve went on to win that match by a convincing 3-0 margin, which muted questions of whether they could cope under ordinary situations with a pressing midfield of better caliber. The run of play begged the question: What if Juve faced a pressing team with better players?
Schweinsteiger is, at 28, in the physical prime of his career and is now in the form of his life. He was extremely motivated for success last season and played brilliantly before a broken collarbone and ankle ligament damage induced a decline of form as he was forced to play through the pain barrier.
Schweinsteiger's desire to atone for missing Bayern's final penalty kick in the Champions League final seems to burn with every game, and his range of skills—from short- and long-range passing to dribbling to ball-winning and more—make him arguably the most complete midfielder in the world.
Vidal may be the best-adapted Juve midfielder to face Bayern, having played in the Bundesliga with Leverkusen for four seasons before moving to Turin. His skills as a ball-winner are unparalleled, and his energy and versatility have been vital to Pirlo's success.
Playing opposite Vidal is Bayern's Luiz Gustavo. The Brazilian has not often played this season and is less complete than Vidal. Gustavo was brilliant against Real Madrid in the Champions League last season, however, and his athleticism and mentality will be huge assets in spite of his limited ability on the ball.
The final comparison is between Kroos and Marchisio, who are not very closely related in role but tend to be the most offensive-minded of their respective clubs. Kroos has been one of Bayern's top performers in the Champions League in the last two seasons, and his volleyed goal in the first leg against Arsenal in February was a piece of technical wizardry. He may not be the greatest defender, but Kroos is arguably the most technically gifted midfielder who will play on Tuesday and can play a part in distributing in both deep areas and in the final third.
Marchisio is a somewhat polarizing figure among Serie A analysts. He scores and assists less often than Kroos and is not obviously brilliant in any one area. Yet, he's scored twice and assisted three more in the Champions League this season and seems to give his team a substantial lift. He may have doubters, but there is certainly a reason why Marchisio starts in a strong Juve midfield.
Kroos may be the more talented player, but Marchisio finds ways to make his impression felt. A similar statement could be made to relate the two midfields overall, with Bayern having an advantage in terms of quality. If Juventus are to advance to the semifinals, they will have to find ways to overcome this gap.
While it's true that a team can go very far without an elite striker—Bayern should know this, having progressed to the 2010 Champions League final with Ivica Olic as their first choice—the odds are very much against Juve, who simply lack a scoring presence in the center of attack.
Neither Alessandro Matri nor Fabio Quagliarella, nor Mirko Vucinic nor Sebastian Giovinco is an elite goalscorer. In fact, none of the Juventus strikers has scored more than 15 goals in a Serie A season. In a combined 11 seasons (including the current) at Juve, none has exceeded 10.
As a function of their formation, Juve's wingers are more converted defensive players than attackers, and although their central midfield core is versatile, none of Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio or Andrea Pirlo could be classified as a No. 10. Although they have yet to be held scoreless in the Champions League, there is a distinct lack of class in the Juventus attack that could pose a problem against a team with a strong defense.
Bayern, on the other hand, have vastly superior class in attack. In the Bundesliga, which is four games shorter than Serie A, Mario Gomez has exceeded the 20-goal mark three times in his career. He had 12 in 12 Champions League appearances last season, eight in eight the year before, and in 2010-11 and 2011-12 scored a combined 80 goals in all club competitions.
Mario Mandzukic is less established at the highest level, having only played at Wolfsburg for two seasons before joining Bayern in the current campaign. He's already scored 15 goals in the Bundesliga, however, and was joint-top scorer at Euro 2012 along with Gomez, among others.
Even Bayern's third-choice, the 34-year-old Claudio Pizarro, is more established than any of the Juventus attackers. The Peruvian scored 15 Bundesliga goals on six occasions in his career and is the all-time leading foreign scorer in the German top flight. Critically, Pizarro has withstood the test of time: His three most prolific seasons have come since he's turned 30, and he scored four goals and gave two assists against Hamburg on Saturday.
On class and history, the Bayern strikers are simply a plane above their Juve counterparts. Adding an attacking midfield core of Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller into the mix, there is no doubt the German giants will have a substantial advantage in attack.
Juventus deserve heaps of credit for what they have managed to do in the last year-and-a-half. As recently as 2011, they were the laughingstock of European football, a power so severely wounded that even some €230 million in transfer expenditures between 2007 and 2011 couldn't save them from humiliation in the form of 4-1 defeats to Bayern Munich (December, 2009 in Turin) and Fulham (March, 2010 at Craven Cottage), and seventh-placed finishes in Serie A in 2010 and 2011.
Since Antonio Conte took the helm as coach in 2011, Juventus have reclaimed much of the respect they lost following the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. They went undefeated in Serie A last season, winning the title comfortably and are now front-runners to claim a second consecutive domestic trophy this May. They also have advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals following a 5-0 rout of Celtic in the Round of 16.
In spite of their domestic and European success, however, Juventus remain unproven at the highest level.
There is something to be said for a team that can consistently win weekend fixtures, but success on the domestic stage does not always correlate with success against great teams.
Real Madrid steamrolled the competition in La Liga last season, winning the Spanish competition ahead of Barcelona by a comfortable nine-point margin. And yet, the champions only won one out of six fixtures against Barca, losing three. There was no doubt the better team in a one-off was the Catalan side.
Juventus have proved to be capable of regularly beating lesser opponents in Serie A but are a big fish in a small pond in the Italian league: Even teams like Milan and Napoli aren't currently at an elite level. Even Champions League opponents Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk (and certainly not Nordsjaelland and Celtic) are not exactly teams at the peak of the European hierarchy right now.
Based on performance at the highest level in the last few years, Barcelona, Bayern and (although a bit behind) Real Madrid, are established decisively as the top three teams in Europe.
Although their players may have a growing reputation for underperforming for club and country in major tournament finals, Bayern have reached two Champions League finals in three seasons. They struggled to the 2010 final but have improved their squad with each passing season. Bayern outclassed Manchester City last season, and the fact that their tie with Real Madrid went to penalties was very flattering for the Spanish side, who were outplayed.
Bayern are a year more mature than they were 12 months ago, and none of their starters is on the wrong side of 30. They have shown in the past that they have the grit to beat elite teams, even if it means going to penalties. And they have a hunger to win the Champions League title that now is greater than ever before.
The Turin side, on the other hand, are still rediscovering play in the Champions League and remain untested. For Juve to be the best, they have to beat the best. Until then, they will be underdogs against Bayern.