I am sure that fans of Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Celtic will forgive me for saying that the four teams that make up the Champions League semi-finals are the ones that most neutral observers would class to be the best in Europe, and Tuesday’s first last-four tie gets the mouth watering like few other fixtures.
With Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid to come on Wednesday looking exciting enough, Barcelona’s trip to the Allianz Arena to face newly-crowned Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich promises to be something special.
One of these two sides has competed in each of the last four finals, with Barca twice winners in 2009 and 2011, with Bayern losing out in 2010 and 2012.
I would argue that kind of consistency (Barca made the semi-finals in both of the years they didn’t make the final) stands these two giants of European football as the two finest sides of the last half-decade, and it would have made a fitting final at Wembley next month.
But only one can make it, and both have extra motivation beyond the obvious.
Wembley holds a special place for Barcelona: the Catalans won their first-ever European Cup at the old stadium in 1992, while the performance they gave in beating Manchester United there to lift the trophy in 2011 was among the best ever seen in the final of the competition.
For Bayern, this is all about righting a wrong. Last season was meant to see Munich crowned as European champions, but losing to Chelsea on penalties in the final in their own stadium was a sicknening blow that is driving the club forward this year – and I think it can drive them all the way to go one better.
While there are three incredibly difficult matches to negotiate before that becomes a reality, I strongly believe the first of them on Tuesday can put Bayern in a great position come the second leg next week.
Jupp Heynckes’ men are 21/20 to beat Barcelona at the Allianz, and that is a bet I am having big-time.
The draw is 5/2, with an away win at 12/5, but given Barca’s away record in the Champions League knock-out stages, you have to be all over Bayern here.
Since Pep Guardiola took over in the summer of 2008, Barcelona’s results on the road when they have reached the last 16 of the competition have been, to be kind, patchy.
In 15 matches, the Catalans have won just three times – at Bayer Leverkusen, Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Those other 12 matches include defeats at Inter, Arsenal, Chelsea and AC Milan, with just two goals scored in those matches.
In fact, Barca have struck just 16 goals in those 15 games – a surprisingly paltry total given their attacking prowess – and in nearly all of them they have failed to look their normal dominant, relentless selves.
Even this year, they have lost at Celtic in the group stages, Milan in the last 16 and laboured, both home and away, to draws against Paris Saint-Germain, a tie from which the Spaniards can consider themselves slightly fortunate to have emerged unscathed, and I think Bayern have the beating of them at home.
Heynckes’ side have been sensational this season, running away with the Bundesliga (their lead at the top stands at 20 points) and swatting away all comers – especially since the turn of the year.
Since coming back from their winter break, Bayern have won 19 of their 20 games in all competitions (their only defeat coming against Arsenal when they were effectively already through), scoring an incredible 59 goals, and the way they dismantled Juventus in the last round, winning 4-0 on aggregate, was seriously impressive.
At home this year, Bayern have won 19 of their 23 matches, scoring 83 goals, and their razor-sharp attack can get the better of a Barca defence that has kept just one clean sheet in 12 away games, conceding 18 goals in that run.
And with Barca struggling for goals on the road against the best that Europe has to offer, Munich can outshoot their La Liga counterparts and take a lead to the Camp Nou. Take the 21/20 they do just that.