Real Madrid will be looking to slay some demons — from the recent past as well as much further back — in their UEFA Champions League semifinal clash against Bayern Munich (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
The clash brings together two of Europe’s authentic giant clubs, who between them have won 14 European Cups. Visitor Bayern is the holder, five-time winner, and looking to become the first team to retain the trophy since AC Milan over 20 years ago. Host Madrid has won it a record nine times, but has now gone 12 years searching for a tenth European crown.
The roll of honor goes on — this is the 20th game between the clubs in Europe (the most played of any UEFA fixture) and a sixth semifinal meeting in the competition. Bayern has won four of those last five, most recently two seasons ago when a rollercoaster tie ended with an agonized Santiago Bernabeu crowd watched as Jose Mourinho’s Madrid let slip an aggregate lead and lost 3-1 on penalties.
This defeat pressed home the idea around Madrid of Bayern as "the black beast" — Los Blancos’ nemesis outside Spain. Fans and pundits have this week been recalling painful incidents from the last four decades, when German "ogres" from Karl Heinz Rummenigge through Lothar Matthaus to Oliver Kahn dished out physical and emotional pain to their side. Bayern’s current coach Josep Guardiola inspires even more concern — having won five and drew two of seven Bernabeu visits as Barcelona manager.
More positive Madridistas have however been remembering that the Bundesliga giants were dismissed on the way to both their two most recent Champions League wins. And that current coach Carlo Ancelotti has won the trophy as both a player and manager — while winning four and drawing two of his six meetings with Bayern.
Such is the history. Ancelotti’s concerns this week have been more current — especially since Cristiano Ronaldo limped off during the 3-0 quarterfinal first leg win against Borussia Dortmund three weeks ago. Suffering from both knee and thigh muscle injuries, Ronaldo missed both the second leg in Dortmund — which Madrid lost 2-0 to just about to squeak through — plus last week’s Copa del Rey final against Barcelona which Madrid won 2-1 thanks to Gareth Bale’s late solo winner.
"I wanted to play and help the team but my teammates did a great job," Ronaldo said after the final win. âIt is the first trophy of the season, now we will keep on fighting for the other two. I’m getting better and want more than anything to be able to help the team as soon as possible."
The Portugal captain, this season’s competition top scorer so far with 14 goals, then returned to full training ahead of schedule on Monday, and is sure to start. And although he may be somewhat undercooked given his recent lack of action he will not be wanting for motivation — having missed a vital penalty in that shootout against Bayern two years ago.
Ronaldo’s return means a reshuffle, with Bale (recovering from a bout of flu) switched across to the right wing, Angel di Maria moving back into midfield and youngster Isco dropping to the bench. There could also be a change in defense, with Marcelo returning from a hamstring injury at left back.
Ancelotti will want his very best XI out because as Ronaldo hinted at last week, although the Copa del Rey final win was welcome it was almost just a tune-up for this much bigger game. The European Cup remains the big one for Blancos’ fans, pundits and especially president Florentino Perez. Even Ancelotti agreed with a reporter’s suggestion afterwards that he and his players were already looking ahead.
"The victory is very important for us to keep a good mood in the dressing room and to help prepare for the next game," he said. "Bayern Munich has a similar style to Barcelona."
Coming into the club last summer Ancelotti showed he knew he had to do better. "We all know that ‘La Decima’ is the big objective, for the club, for everyone," Ancelotti said on his first day as Madrid coach. "I have that ambition and that responsibility, that is not a problem for me."
That was easy to say then, but the real work must be done now. Munich has the history, but Ancelotti also has pedigree in this competition, and he has Ronaldo back. Let the demon slaying begin.