As April moves into May and trophy hopes turn into concrete challenges for major honours, only the very best clubs around remain in the running for the UEFA Champions League.
This week sees both semi-final second legs take place, with Real Madrid enjoying a slim advantage over Bayern Munich from the first 90 minutes, while Atletico Madrid and Chelsea remain locked at 0-0.
B/R spoke with Fox Soccer analyst and former Newcastle United defender Warren Barton, who featured in the Champions League during Newcastle's 1997-98 campaign, about the upcoming second legs.
With the Bayern-Real match first up on Tuesday, many neutrals feel the eventual winner of this season's Champions League could come from this semi-final. Bayern dominated possession but didn't possess the clinical edge that Real Madrid showed—and Barton feels the home fans will want to see the Bundesliga champions be a little more uptempo this time around.
"Bayern kept the ball well in the first leg but the supporters will want them to be a little more direct and incisive at home. They need more tempo, more of a cutting edge. It's relentless when they pass the ball around in the final third, looking for openings, playing with style. But they need that goal threat which they didn't really have in the first leg."
One of the major strengths of this Munich side, though, is their depth in quality in the final third.
Barton acknowledges Pep Guardiola's preference of keeping possession but also points to the fact that they did go more direct when they needed to against Manchester United in the previous round, looking to find striker Mario Mandzukic more quickly and getting Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to switch flanks.
In that way, Bayern could also to stretch the pitch, opening up what was a tight and organised defence in the first leg, potentially creating more room to exploit between the Madrid full- and centre-backs.
Therein, however, lies another danger for Bayern, says Barton.
"Real's best line of defence is to attack whenever possible. Quick turnovers and pace on the break gives them a massive threat. Carlo Ancelotti is perhaps underrated as a tactical coach, but he can set his team up to give Bayern problems, too.
"It wouldn't be a big surprise to see Gareth Bale start on the left, for example, and ask him to keep Philipp Lahm occupied in his defensive role at right-back, preventing him from linking up with Robben to good effect further up the field."
What it comes down to, for the former England international, is one team needing to attack, and the other being the best in the world on the counter. It should make for a spectacular game of football, which is not to be missed.
Meanwhile, La Liga leaders Atletico will be heading to London to play Chelsea, with Barton of the belief that the 0-0 scoreline gives the English side the slight advantage.
"Many of the Atletico players won't have played somewhere tight and with such a strong home-field advantage as Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho will use his side's mentality and mind-set to make it extremely difficult to be broken down by Atletico."
Chelsea have several players out through suspension and injury, but it's John Terry who will be the biggest miss in Barton's view. His ability to organise, his leadership and relentless will to stop everything heading his goalkeeper's way are big assets to lose, though Petr Cech's absence could also be key.
It would be Branislav Ivanovic in at centre-back who Barton chooses to replace the captain, with Ashley Cole staying in on the left and David Luiz staying in midfield.
Having said that, Chelsea still retain options in the squad to come up with a number of game plans.
"Don't be surprised to see Chelsea set up similarly to how they did at Anfield. It's perceived as being negative, but forget that; this is a Champions League semi-final and Mourinho knows full well it's about getting through, nothing more. People get too caught up with this 'parking the bus' talk; it's about winning the game and reaching the final, and few are better at that than Mourinho."
Barton's predictions: Bayern 1-1 Real Madrid (Real progress on aggregate) and Chelsea 2-1 Atletico (Ivanovic to score, Chelsea go through).
- Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid, with play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson and analyst Eric Wynalda on the call, live Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1
- Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid, live Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1
- Pregame studio coverage begins on both days live from Los Angeles with host Rob Stone, analysts Warren Barton, Brian McBride, 2008 Champions League winner Mikael Silvestre (Tuesday) and former Chelsea defender Mario Melchiot (Wednesday)
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