Munich – FC Bayern Munich’s bid to win their first European crown since 2001 faces arguably its sternest test yet this evening as they welcome Spanish giants FC Barcelona to the Allianz Arena for their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg (kick-off 20:45 CEST).

The anticipation is mounting in the Bavarian capital as the soon-to-be-crowned champions of Spain, with three-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi, take on a Bayern side who have already sealed a record 22nd Bundesliga title this season.

Brilliant Bayern

Barcelona have won the Champions League three times in the last six seasons and currently lead the Primera Division by 13 points, but Bayern could hardly be better prepared for the biggest game of their season so far. Their last two games have yielded two 6-1 thrashings, against in the DFB Cup and Hannover 96 in the Bundesliga at the weekend, and the squad is brimming with confidence.

Every player is playing his part, leaving head coach Jupp Heynckes with some difficult team selection decisions to make, none more so, perhaps, than in attack. Claudio Pizarro scored two and made two at the AWD-Arena on Saturday, while Mario Gomez has bagged five in his last two appearances. “Claudio is the Bundesliga’s highest-scoring foreign player and Mario has a goals-to-games ratio that rivals Gerd Müller," said Heynckes. "I am lucky to have them at my disposal.”

Lahm: ‘Two even teams’

During the pre-match press conference, Reds’ captain Philipp Lahm was quick to remind that Barcelona are unbeaten in their last 17 games against German opposition, and more poignantly, he recalled the scoreline the last time these two sides met, in the quarter-finals in 2008/09. The tie was effectively settled at half time in the first leg, when Barcelona led Bayern 4-0. For Lahm, though, times have changed.

“There was a clear difference between the teams then, but we have improved a lot over the last few years and now we are on a par with them,” said the 29-year-old. “Over the last few years, they've been the best team in Europe, but we are now good enough to rub shoulders with the Barcelonas of this world.”

Mindful of Messi

The visitors’ secret weapon is undoubtedly Messi, who has been named the world's best player in each of the past three years. Lahm, Javi Martinez and Heynckes all agreed he Is ”the best player in the wolrld,” but the latter denied that merely keeping him in check would win the game. “Barcelona don’t consist of just Messi," he said. "They have Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, [Gerard] Pique - a whole host of excellent players.”

Lahm & Co. might take the advice of Spanish football expert Graham Hunter on how to stop Messi, but the skipper underlined the leap Bayern have made since losing in last year’s final to Chelsea FC. “I believe we have the team, the players and the character to win this game in the Allianz Arena," he forwarded boldly. Germany's most successful club has also got a whole lot stronger after agreeing the transfer of Mario Götze from Borussia Dortmund, but first up, it's Messi & Co. "This will be a footballing feast for the fans.”

Europe's best

Indeed, the 65,000 lucky souls who managed to get a ticket for Tuesday night's clash are set to see the creme de la creme of European football, according to Barcelona's assistant coach Jordi Roura. "Bayern are already (German) champions, and we are six points away from becoming Spanish champions," he said.

"Bayern and Barcelona have been involved in the most finals in recent years and this is our sixth semi-final on the trot. That just shows how strong both clubs are." With four European triumphs apiece, this is certainly a clash that does justice to the title “Champions League”.

Possible line-ups

Bayern: Neuer – Lahm, Boateng, Dante, Alaba – Schweinsteiger, Martinez – Robben, Müller, Ribery, Pizarro

Barcelona: Victor Valdes –Dani Alves, Pique, Abidal, Alba – Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta – Pedro, Messi, Villa

Bernie Reeves