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Countdown to Champions League final: Looking at Bayern Munich, back to front

May 18, 2012, 9:20 PM EDT

Bayern Munich's Schweinsteiger and his teammates celebrate a goal against Borussia Dortmund during the German DFB Cup final soccer match in Berlin Reuters

They may be at home on Saturday, but when Bayern Munich kicks off their UEFA Champions League final with Chelsea, there’ll be a slightly unfamiliar feel about them. Three prominent suspensions will force a shake up in defense, with the implications of Jupp Heynckes’ reshuffle being felt all the way into attack.

They’ll still be favorites when the whistle blows, but facing the prospects of Didier Drogba matched up against a makeshift defense could cost a few Bayern coaches their Friday night’s sleep.

Looking at … defense: Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. A handful of people who take him over generally-recognized world best Iker Casillas (Real Madrid). I count myself among them. He’s the complete package: 6’4″, only 26 years old, commanding, confident, and quick. His penalty shootout performance in the semifinals at the Santiago Bernabeu (letting only one goal past him in the tiebreaker) pushed FCB into the final.

The rest of Saturday’s defense is a huge question mark. Superstar fullback Philipp Lahm is a constant, but Holger Badstuder and David Alaba – the normal left side of Bayern’s back four – are suspended, as is midfield destroyer Luiz Gustavo. Daniel van Buyten, out since January with a foot injury, is expected to start along side Jerome Boateng in the middle. Rafinha, who started 20 Bundesliga matches this season, could come in for Alaba (shifting Lahm to the left), while Bastian Schweinsteiger, normally the shuttler, could be asked to blow things up.

Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (for van Buyten) and Diego Contento (for Rafinha) are also options. Given van Buyten’s tenuous health and Contento’s ability to play left back, don’t be surprised to see any of the four selected.

If the players perform to their potentials, Bayern’s defense will be fine. Their biggest problem beyond cohesion will be van Buyten. A physical match for Didier Drogba, van Buyten lacks the quickness to contend with Chelsea’s counter-attacking tendencies, though the suspension of Ramires will likely take much of the push out of Chelsea’s counter.

Looking at … midfield: Toni Kroos will drop back and play closer to Schweinsteiger in Bayern’s 4-2-3-1. In the previous round, the 22-year-old had been deployed higher, giving Bayern a 4-3-3 look. After Bayern accounts for their suspensions, Thomas Müller will assume that role.

Müller’s natural tendencies have him play higher up the pitch. Even if Jupp Heynckes’ tactics call for him to come deeper, Schweinsteiger and Kroos are often going to have to handle the job by themselves, potentially outnumbered at times by a Chelsea midfield expected to feature Juan Mata, Frank Lampard and (sitting) John Obi-Mikel.

If Mata’s pushed wide again (as he was against Barcelona), that means Michael Essien’s gotten a shock start. That won’t change the numbers game for Bayern.

Look at … attack: Right wing Arjen Robben is Bayern’s most dangerous player, but left wing Franck Ribery is not far off. Often the two will be seen on the same side of the pitch, with Ribery coming in to play off Robben while the duo is supported wide by Lahm. Ribery coming in could work well on Saturday, with Müller potentially providing a second penalty area threat along with Mario Gomez. Or, Bayern could flip flanks and (if Rafinha starts) have Ribery and Lahm working down the left against José Bosingwa and Salomon Kalou.

If Chelsea plays as deep as they’ve become accustomed to doing under Roberto di Matteo, Bayern could be served by having to sacrifice Gustavo for Müller. While the Brazilian would have been Bayern’s ideal answer to Chelsea’s counter attack, if München dominates possession, they’ll have both Kroos and Schweinsteiger positioned to pick apart the Blues defense, with Müller serving as an additional advanced option.

Likely Starting Lineup (alternate option)

G: Manuel Neuer
LB: Philipp Lahm (Diego Contento)
CB: Daniel van Buyten (Anatoliy Tymoshchuk)
CB: Jerome Boateng
RB: Rafinha (Philipp Lahm)
M: Bastian Schweinsteiger
M: Toni Kross
LW: Frank Ribery
AM: Thomas Müller
RW: Arjen Robben
F: Mario Gomez

Most dangerous player: Arjen Robben

Most likely to score: Mario Gomez

Best creator: Toni Kroos

Key defender: Daniel van Buyten

Most important: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Back to front: Chelsea

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