It's crunch time in the Champions League, with Bayern Munich set to face holders Real Madrid in a game Philipp Lahm described as 'a quarterfinal which feels like a final.' But the Germans have some major injury problems.
Bayern Munich face European champions Real Madrid at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night in a Champions League quarterfinal tie worthy of the final itself. "It's showtime!" said Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ahead of the match - "Let's do it!"
The two footballing behemoths meet for the 23rd time in European competition and for the 11th time in the knock-out rounds. No other two teams have played each other more often in the Champions League or its predecessor, the European Cup, and the storylines are endless.
In the short term, the Germans are out for revenge after losing 0-5 on aggregate to Real in the 2013-14 semifinals, including a 0-4 humiliation in Munich, as Madrid went on to win their famous decima - a record tenth European title. Real Madrid's coach at the time? Current Bayern boss Carlo Ancelotti.
His opposite number on Wednesday night of course is French legend Zinedine Zidane, who played 86 games under Ancelotti at the Bernabeu, before also becoming assistant coach. On the pitch, two of the world's most deadly goal-scorers go head to head in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski - although the Pole caused a scare on Tuesday by interrupting training after 20 minutes with a persistent shoulder problem and is a doubt for Wednesday's game.
There is intrigue in midfield too with former Bayern star and German World Cup winner Toni Kroos pulling the strings for the Spanish side, while Bayern's Spanish schemer Thiago Alantara is arguably the best midfielder in Europe this season.
After an unconvincing first half of the season characterized by dramatic late goals and rescue efforts, Ancelotti's team is hitting top form at just the right time - and the Italian will no doubt claim that this was the plan all along. Closing in on a fifth straight Bundesliga title, last Tuesday's 0-1 defeat to Hoffenheim was Bayern's first league defeat since losing away at Borussia Dortmund in November.
The Bavarians exorcised that particular demon on Saturday by thumping their biggest domestic rivals 4-1, demonstrating that the Hoffenheim reverse was merely a blip - a game which Ancelotti will have been more than happy to sacrifice if it guarantees freshness for more important challenges.
Bayern getting better with age
And despite an ageing squad, Bayern's experienced warriors look fresher than ever. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben have scored a combined 237 goals and provided 251 assists in a 594 games for Bayern since 2009 - including 16 goals and 23 assists this season alone. Both were on the score sheet against Dortmund and look set to start against Real while Robben insisted that the losses in 2014 would have no effect on the current crop.
The home side will also be boosted by the return of Manuel Neuer in goal while Germany's footballer of the year 2016 Jerome Boateng is a more than adequate replacement for Mats Hummels, who sustained an ankle ligament injury in training on Sunday. Thomas Müller is also fit again, although Ancelotti is more likely to opt for the more defensive midfield trio of Xabi Alonso (also ex-Madrid), Arturo Vidal and Thiago. Müller is likely to replace Lewandowski up front if the Polish forward loses his fitness battle.
"We must not concede a lot of chances at home," said captain Philipp Lahm, recognizing the threat posed by the Spanish league-leaders. "Every goal we concede will be doubly punished."
"This is a quarterfinal which feels like a final," he continued. "I have huge confidence in this team. We're really well prepared."
Real's defensive worries
Real Madrid are currently three points clear of Barcelona at the top of La Liga but come into Wednesday's showdown on the back of a demoralizing 1-1 draw at home to local rivals Atlético Madrid on Saturday, Antoine Griezmann netting a late equalizer to end a end a run of six straight wins.
Bayern's attacking players will take confidence from the fact that central defenders Pepe (ribs) and Raphael Varane (thigh) will miss both legs of the quarterfinal. Furthermore, Sergio Ramos is only one booking away from a suspension and will have to tread carefully.
Welsh forward Gareth Bale has been struggling for form but is still set to start as part of a formidable attack alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.