Bayern Munich roll into the Santiago Bernabeu looking to make a statement as the holders take on Real Madrid, one of the tourney’s favorites. Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda have your call (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) as the clash many of us thought would happen in Lisbon, comes right now.
Bayern are smarting after Manchester United managed to hold them to a draw at Old Trafford on April Fool’s Day — fitting considering that United have subsequently sacked David Moyes and Bayern treated the result as the wake-up call it was. Since then, they have gone on the slide in the Bundesliga — a competition Josep Guardiola pointedly noted was "already over" — but kept on rolling in the German Cup and UEFA Champions League. When United came to Munich, the Bavarians simply swept them away, recovering promptly from a goal scored by Patrice Evra to emphatically convince all in attendance that while the Germans might have taken their foes for granted, they certainly weren’t going to lose their place in the semifinals.
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But Real Madrid is a different beat altogether. The two teams have a long and tangled history that stretches beyond Guardiola’s tormenting of the Spanish giants while at the helm of Barcelona. Bayern will be meeting Real for the sixth time at this stage of the competition and the two sides have met more often in the Europan Cup than any other. And Bayern, it must be said, seems to have Real’s number — they have won four of their last five semifinal ties and gained a local reputation as something of a beast in these parts.
Philipp Lahm laid it out simply this afternoon. "It’s a meeting between two top sides. Matches like these are decided by passion and desire," said the Bayern captain. "We are here to win. We are fully aware it’s a difficult task."
Lahm is understating matters somewhat. Matches like these are in fact decided by tactics and talent, and how Bayern marshals what Javi Martinez called Real’s "lightning counters" may well prove the difference in this match. This is not the case of a cat toying with a mouse, as we saw two weeks ago when Guardiola rolled out a "W-M" formation against United, leaving just two defenders back and flooding the zone. Here, Bayern will have to be aware that Real’s 4-3-3 is capable of flooding their own back line and Dante and Jerome Boateng in particular are likely to be put under direct pressure from Angel di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo.
One would expect goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to be under more pressure here than in other games. Unfortunately for Real, Neuer is arguably one of the two top keepers in the sport right now — as it happens, the other one is in Madrid, albeit across town. Strong under pressure and with immaculate distribution, it will take something special to beat him.
How Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lahm deal with the threat Luka Modric poses is the battle to watch. Modric has been Madrid’s best player late on in the season, at the center of almost every one of their attacks and looking simply irrepressible. Schweinsteiger is nearly metronomic in his distribution but if he is pushed into more of a recovery role, that takes away from his ability to jump-start the attack.
Of course, Bayern aren’t exactly hurting in that department, either, with Tony Kroos, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery arguably standing as the hottest trio in the game right now. Ever since Kroos was linked with a move away from Bayern (to Manchester United, as it happens, which now seems laughable) he has elevated his game, becoming the fulcrum of Bayern’s attack. Ribery and Robben keep doing what they do best — ripping people apart from the flanks. And Lahm, who has seamlessly made the move from all-star defender to all-star midfielder, now pulls the strings. When they all get going, they can be dizzying.
But Bayern are not making the mistake of looking past Real as some suspected they might have done with United.
"They are one of the strongest teams in the semifinals," allowed Guardiola on Thursday afternoon. "We will have to put in an outstanding performance to get a good result here."
That they will. But if there ever was a clash of champions, this is it. And for some of us, it’s a pity that this isn’t the final. The only good thing is that we get to see two games between these giants instead of just one.