The Champions League gets serious tonight, with the first of two top-quality semi-finals set to take place at the Allianz Arena.
Home of this year’s final, Bayern Munich will be hoping they can take advantage of that fact by booking a place in the showpiece event on May 19th.
Standing in their way are, of course, Real Madrid.
The Spanish giants are enjoying a wonderful season both domestically and in Europe, leading the race for the La Liga title by four points ahead of their great rivals Barcelona.
But, whilst many have already written Bayern off ahead of tonight’s first leg, the facts suggest that a Madrid-Barca final is by no means a formality.
Munich, who drew against Werder Bremen at the weekend and are now unlikely to claim the Bundesliga title this season, have everything to play for when Jose Mourinho arrives in the German capital tonight.
They’ve also cruised through to the last four, navigating through a tough Group A that included Manchester City, Villarreal and Napoli, before smashing Basle and Marseille in the knockout rounds.
In Mario Gomez, the four-time European Cup winners have a striker who can provide a constant threat, with 11-goals to his name in this season’s competition.
Franck Ribery provides the creative spark, with five assists to his name. The French international is also the most fouled player in the competition, creating set-piece opportunities from which Munich are extremely dangerous.
Arjen Robben has all the attributes to make a difference on the big stage, and will certainly be up for this occasion against his old club and former manager. Bastian Sweinsteiger also provides notable experience and craft in midfield.
Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng are also part of the young German national squad making waves in international football, suggesting Bayern have plenty to offer in both defence and attack.
Whilst Los Blancos have plenty of attacking options themselves, it’s their defence which has been particularly impressive this season in the competition. It will have to be against Bayer’s numerous weapons.
With just six goals conceded (and two of those coming with victory already assured against Apoel Nicosia), Mourinho has built the club’s success around solid performances from Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe.
32 goals in ten games shows this side isn’t light when it comes to artillery in-front of goal, and unsurprisingly Ronaldo leads the way with eight. But to suggest this is a one-man team would be foolish, as Karim Benzema has seven and Jose Callejon five.
Surprisingly, Gonzalo Higuain only has three goals in the competition thus far this season.
All those goals are created by a talented midfield that constantly tests the opposition's back line, with five assists each for Kaka and Benzema. Left back Marcelo has four to his name, whilst Xabi Alonso knows how to play a decent pass as well.
With so many quality players on the pitch, the match is extremely tough to call. History doesn’t help either, with the two sides meeting on five occasions in the knockout stage of this competition in the last 12 years.
Madrid have won three of the five ties on aggregate, but their last victory against the Bavarians came in the 2003-04 round of 16.
Munich have the most recent success, winning on away goals at the same stage in 2006-07 after an enthralling 4-4 aggregate draw over 180 minutes.
What this all tells us is that we can expect an absolute cracker between two of the best clubs in Europe both historically and now. All eyes will rightfully be on this match tonight, before turning to Stamford Bridge tomorrow night.
Chelsea and Barcelona have compelling recent history, an additional factor that makes this tie even more intriguing.
The Blues enjoyed a famous victory in 2004-05, winning 5-4 on aggregate thanks to a 4-2 home win in the second leg of their last 16 clash.
A year later, it was the Blaugrana who progressed at the same stage, winning on their travels and then securing a draw at the Nou Camp.
Their next meeting in the knockout stage was the most dramatic, with Barca winning the 2008/09 semi-final after some controversial decisions in west London. Chelsea had four penalty claims turned down, before Andres Iniesta struck the winner in injury-time.
The decisions that night still irk many related to Chelsea Football Club, and is a topic that Mourinho is happy to bring up when discussing Barcelona even though he wasn’t managing the Blues at the time.
And it’s a match that Di Matteo will be certain to call upon when laying down his rallying cry to the players ahead of the match.
Didier Drogba’s performance at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur suggests he might get the nod ahead of Fernando Torres, although the Spaniard has shown great improvement under the Italian caretaker manager.
Frank Lampard seems reinvigorated under the former midfielder too, whilst Ramires continues to be the base for much of the club’s success on the pitch. Juan Mata will also need to be at his best for the Blues to stand a chance.
Defence could be an issue, with captain John Terry hoping for a partner after David Luiz’s injury in the semi-final all-but ended his chances of playing against the current holders. Gary Cahill was also limping at full-time, but should be fit to play.
For Barca, it was Lionel Messi to the rescue once again at the weekend, with the Argentine’s brace against Levante proving the difference in a 2-1 away win. He is the obvious threat for Pep Guardiola’s side, with 14 goals in the competition thus far.
Cesc Fabregas has also found his goalscoring shoes since arriving in Catalonia from Arsenal last summer, whilst Alexis Sanchez , Pedro and Tello are all quick and dangerous with an eye for goal.
Andres Iniexta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets make up a midfield three that would scare any domestic side in the competition, whilst Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol have bags of experience in-front of Victor Valdes.
Full-back Dani Alves can also add an attacking threat, as well as his solidity at the back.
What it all means is that the four-time European Cup winners have plenty of talent in all areas of the pitch, and will understandably start as favourites against a side on the rise – but ultimately still fifth in the Premier League.
Like the first semi-final, it’s certain to be a great match, and with El Classico around the corner on Saturday night, perhaps both Spanish sides will have half an eye on that huge domestic match-up.
If the records of Mourinho and Guardiola are anything to by, that’s an unlikely proposition, but Munich and Chelsea can live in hope.
More important than hope is belief however, and the two ‘underdogs’ have every right to believe that they might just be able to upset to applecart this season.
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