German giants Bayern Munich head into their UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg clash at home to Italian side Fiorentina on Wednesday brimming with confidence after 12 straight wins in all competitions.
Inspired by prolific Dutch striker Arjen Robben, who has scored in his last five appearances, and fit-again French midfield star Franck Ribery, Bayern are second in the Bundesliga on goal difference and are in the semi-finals of the German Cup. In contrast, Fiorentina have struggled, going five games without a win in Serie A, being beaten in the first leg of the Italian Cup semi-finals by Inter Milan earlier this month and slumping to a disappointing 11th place in the league.
However, the Italians have found an extra dimension in European competition and topped their Champions League group with five straight wins, including a 2-1 victory against Liverpool at Anfield to complete a double over the Reds. Bayern Munich president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge warned against taking the Italians too lightly.
"If we do not underestimate Fiorentina and do not allow ourselves to be blinded by their league position, then we can advance into the quarter-finals," Rummenigge said. "If we believe that we can just breeze through this round, then we'll get a rude awakening," added Rummenigge.
Nonetheless, history is on the side of the Germans. Fiorentina have never won a Champions League game in Germany and Bayern beat them 3-0 last season at home before a 1-1 draw in the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Bayern's recent form against Italian opposition is also impressive, hammering Juventus 4-1 in December in a winner-takes-all game to advance to the knockout stages.
However, according to Fiorentina captain, Riccardo Montolivo, the Italians are viewing the match at the Allianz Stadium as a way to turn around their season. "This game comes at exactly the right moment. Now we can show what we can do. I'm sure that the challenge of a match away at Bayern could be a turning point for us," he said. And coach Cesare Prandelli said he was prepared to shake up his tactics, complaining after a 2-0 loss away to Sampdoria that La Viola had become "predictable."
"We are going to change the old system to make us difficult for Bayern to read," he said. Ribery is top, second and third of Prandelli's list of concerns. Asked which three Bayern players he feared most, Prandelli said: "Ribery, Ribery and Ribery."
The French international made his first Bundesliga start in four months on Saturday after an injury lay-off in a 3-1 home win against Borussia Dortmund. After a lacklustre first half, Ribery reminded the Bayern faithful what they had been missing, supplying the slide-rule pass that allowed Mario Gomez to score the third and kill off the visitor's resistance. But Ribery's return has been overshadowed by a mystery virus that has laid low a host of players in the squad, forcing coach Louis van Gaal to order separate training sessions.
Fiorentina have their own worries with injuries and suspensions ahead of Wednesday's match. Romanian star Adrian Mutu is serving a provisional suspension for failing drugs tests, while defender Alessandro Gamberini dislocated his shoulder during the Sampdoria game and will not be available.
Bayern are bidding for their second quarter-final place in two seasons, while the Italians have not reached the last eight in Europe's elite club tournament since the 1969/70 season.