While Barcelona skated through the group stage of the Champions League and opened up a double-digit lead on Real Madrid in the race for the La Liga crown, a conversation popped up in the football community about whether or not Bayern Munich had surpassed Barcelona as the best club in the world.
This conversation inevitably progressed to a point where the prevailing majority declared that Bayern had to beat the best to be the best, helping them to claim The Ring™'s lineal football title, or something like that. Of course, Chelsea beat Barcelona (and Bayern) in last year's Champions League. They were knocked out of this year's competition by Juventus, who just lost to Bayern in the quarterfinal, so Bayern are the current lineal champions of Europe anyway.
Much of the conversation about this game will be centered around Pep Guardiola, despite his lack of involvement with either team at the moment. The man who presided over Barcelona during what was arguably their most successful spell ever will take over at the helm of Bayern next season. The over-under on shots of him in the stands during the first leg has been set at 3.5.
As far as the actual game, it should be an interesting clash of styles between two teams with similar levels of talent, but different philosophies. Barcelona emphasize possession over everything else, while Bayern Munich are a much faster and more direct side. Neither is inherently more attacking or ambitious than the other, though possession numbers might suggest otherwise.
Both teams are riddled with key injuries on either end of the pitch. Bayern won't have Toni Kroos, who has become one of Europe's best attacking midfielders in the last couple of years. Barcelona are down three defenders and will have to play a bit of a makeshift back line, which could be problematic against Bayern's potent attack.
Bayern will be without Mario Mandzukic, who is suspended in addition to having picked up an injury. He'll be joined on the sidelines by Kroos and Holger Badstuber. Kroos picked up an injury against Juventus that will keep him out until May, and possibly for the rest of the season, while Badstuber is a long-term absence with torn knee ligaments. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has been fighting a nagging injury, has been declared fit for Bayern.
Barcelona are very thin in defense thanks to three absences. Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano are both out until May and will both struggle to come back before the season ends, while Adriano is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. However, the Blaugrana have picked up a bit of a boost with the return of Eric Abidal, who has returned to full fitness after a liver transplant kept him out over a year. He played 90 minutes and was excellent against Levante at the weekend.
What to watch for
Who Barcelona starts in defense - Marc Bartra is the projected starter, but that's only because the spot couldn't be left blank. Tito Vilanova's opted to play Adriano -- an attacking fullback who has played almost no central defense in his career -- over Bartra in the past. Now that he doesn't have Adriano either, it's anyone's guess what he does. Alex Song could come into the team, Sergio Busquets could drop into defense or Abidal could make a surprise start. He proved his fitness against Levante and certainly has the experience to come into the side in this situation.
Who Bayern starts in defense - The biggest question mark in the Bayern team is whether or not Daniel van Buyten will start. The Belgian veteran has been excellent recently, but has certainly lost a step of pace in the last couple of seasons. Even though Jupp Heynckes has preferred van Buyten to Jerome Boateng recently, he might make a switch if he feels Barcelona are too quick for van Buyten to deal with.
Alexis Sanchez or his potential replacements - There probably isn't a place for David Villa in the team, but it's not like Alexis Sanchez is bullet-proof. Pedro is a near-lock for the starting XI, but Vilanova has yet to figure out the best fit for his other forward position. Alexis was rested at the weekend while Villa went 90, suggesting that Sanchez is in line for a start against Bayern, but he hasn't done anything to prove he deserves that spot over the many competitors for his job. If Sanchez does start, he'll be on a short leash.
Everything Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez do - Any major tactical tweaks that Heynckes will probably start and end with his central midfielders. Keep an eye on everything the pair does early in the match. Are they closing down aggressively? Dropping very deep? What are their triggers to press? Is either one of them making runs from deep in midfield? Are they looking to slow things down and help Bayern keep the ball or spring quick attacks? They're an incredibly versatile pair capable of executing any tactic Heynckes has in mind, which makes it hard to pinpoint what Bayern's main objectives will be from the start.
These teams are too evenly matched for either to take a major advantage to Camp Nou. However, Bayern have been excellent in the first legs of their first two Champions League knockout stage ties, while Barcelona have been less than impressive in their opening fixtures, putting themselves in positions where they have to make a comeback. This should be no different. Bayern win the first leg, 2-1.