Juventus vs. Bayern promises to be the pick of the Champions League last-16
Tuesday night is the sort of Champions League evening to both delight and frustrate. On the one hand, there are two brilliant matches to watch, but on the other ... well, there are two brilliant matches to watch.
How does one choose between Arsenal against Barcelona and Juventus vs. Bayern Munich? The answer might be "with a heavy heart," but while London will undoubtedly see an exceptional team face a very good one, surely the best contest will come in Turin, where two of Europe's giants face each other.
Something extraordinary happened Friday evening. Something that hasn't been seen in months and at times looked like it would never happen again: Juventus didn't win a match. Granted, this was a game in which Max Allegri's side were without a few key players, including the dazzling Paulo Dybala (rested), Sami Khedira (left out in what sounds like a precautionary measure) and Alex Sandro (injured), and it was against a Bologna team who were brilliantly organised. But this was nonetheless a rare occurrence.
"You can't win all the time in football," Allegri said after the game. "These lads have been working so hard for three months, and a hiccup can happen."
That 0-0 draw represented the end of a 15-game winning run in Serie A that took Juventus from a shaky start to top of the table. The squad's most recent loss in the league was in October to Sassuolo. If you throw in a few Coppa Italia games, they had won 18 domestic matches in a row and if you include the Champions League, they had lost just one of their previous 21 -- a meaningless group game against Sevilla.
Allegri's team are in fine form but so too are Bayern. It says something when Pep Guardiola's team merely conceding a goal raises eyebrows, but that's what happened when they went 1-0 down to Darmstadt on Saturday, a state of affairs that lasted a full 23 minutes before Thomas Muller, and then Robert Lewandowski, ensured normal service resumed.
That was just the fourth time Bayern have even trailed all season; in fact, in 32 games in all competitions so far, they have been behind for a total of just 122 minutes. The two games they have lost, against Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga and Arsenal in the Champions League, are extreme outliers. With two teams this strong, you could think of Tuesday's game as being the irresistible force meeting the other irresistible force.
Yet while both teams are in fine shape in terms of results, one has an injury list that would be ruinous for many clubs.
Bayern currently have an entire back four (and a pretty good one, too) sidelined with various ailments -- Holger Badstuber is the latest to join Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez on the sidelines, with Mehdi Benatia having only just returned to full training since December.
Throwing Benatia in against Juve would represent quite a gamble, but then again, most other central defensive solutions would be similarly risky. Serdar Tasci has played only once since arriving from Spartak Moscow, Joshua Kimmich (who partnered with Tasci at the weekend) and Xabi Alonso are midfielders by trade, while David Alaba can play in many positions but is best used elsewhere. Guardiola has succeeded when picking the bare minimum of specialist defenders before, but against a Juventus side that usually find a way through the most stubborn of defences, they could struggle to keep things tight.
Interestingly, Bayern have emphasised Juve's attacking threat in the build-up to this game, with both Alaba and Alonso remarking on how wary the Germans will have to be from set pieces. This might well be something for them to be aware of, although Juventus have scored a relatively modest six league goals from set pieces this season. Still, if Bayern are forced to play a makeshift back line, that threat will increase. With this in mind, one wonders if Allegri will be tempted to start Mario Mandzukic against his former team.
What system will Allegri choose when facing Bayern? For much of the season, he has favoured the three-man back line and wing-backs generally more concerned with attack than defence, but in the past few games, Juve have played with four at the back. One reason for that shift could be the injury to Sandro, meaning that 34-year-old Patrice Evra has required a more defined and defensive role, but Allegri hasn't been wedded to that formation this term.
Given the pace Bayern have on the flanks -- the likes of Douglas Costa, Franck Ribery, Kingsley Coman or Arjen Robben likely to gobble up any space left by wing-backs -- a four-man defence might be the most prudent set-up regardless of which left-sided players are available. The absence of Giorgio Chiellini, who balances out a three-man defence nicely, will also be a factor.
"It would be important for us to score an away goal, but Juve have a very strong defence and it's up to us to play with intelligence," Guardiola said on Monday. "We'll try to win the first leg and then control the second. Compared to last season, we have a much bigger squad with men who can take players on. Of course, so do Juve."
Of their past 45 European games at home, Juventus have lost only two. They were both to Bayern. Finding out whether Guardiola's men will make it three should make for a highly entertaining evening.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.