Real Madrid confidence should be telling
Riding high after its huge weekend victory in El Clasico, Real Madrid now looks to put the sword to Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal second leg on Wednesday (live at 2 p.m. ET on FX). A win will take it into the final in Munich, and give "Los Merengues" a chance to win their tenth European Cup.
By winning in Barcelona on Saturday night, coach Jose Mourinho’s team cast off one of the biggest shadows any side has had to deal with in recent years. As good as Real has been this season, it was unable to get past its bitter rival in a league game until Cristiano Ronaldo took care of that matter at Camp Nou. Now Real has every motivation to regain its European laurels and to strut once more as the king of the continent.
Trailing 2-1 after the first leg in Munich, Real Madrid has serious work to do. The fact that it carries an away goal — added to the fact that it has dominated nearly all comers to the Santiago Bernabeu this season — suggests that even a side of Bayern’s quality will need something very special to survive.
Ronaldo is the man who will hold the key in this second leg. He has carried the Real attack on his back for much of the season, and he again will test Bayern’s occasionally erratic backline on the left flank. Coupled with his instinct for knowing just when to cut inside to create space, Ronaldo surely will give Philipp Lahm all he can handle come Wednesday night.
To be candid, Real’s defense has had issues of its own: Fabio Coentrao and Sergio Ramos were miserable in the first leg and need to show up. While the German team’s defenders can be accused of taking naps, Real’s duo were routinely beaten and need to show better positioning.
Another key figure for Real will be Mesut Ozil, who has come good as advertised. His removal by Mourinho was a bad gaffe in the first leg, as evidenced by Real’s inability to keep Bayern’s vaunted attack under control. That owed something to the profligacy of Mario Gomez in front of goal — Gomez grabbed the late winner, but he was more often ineffective when presented with chances — but Ozil’s play helped keep Arjen Robben under wraps. Even the non-stop work of Franck Ribery did not add up to the Germans dictating tempo.
In Madrid, where Real has been held scoreless only once all season, Mourinho can be expected to employ the same tactics that have been so effective. Ronaldo and Ozil keep defenses busy on the flanks, while Karim Benzema has developed into an effective poacher, finding seams in zonal backlines and exploiting crosses.
Bayern also must be careful about conceding free kicks. Ronaldo has become razor-sharp in that department this season. When he doesn’t actually shoot, he has become a set-up man for Benzema and Ramos at the far post.
What the Germans require in Madrid is a massive performance from Bastian Schweinsteiger. He was Bayern’s most effective midfielder in the first leg and got a full run this past weekend. Bayern could use something more from Thomas Muller than it got in Munich. His 30 minutes as a substitute were notable for their ineffectiveness.
That said, Arjen Robben can be the thorn in his former team’s backside. Manchester United fans surely won’t forget him, and Real must be very careful not to let the Dutchman drift into attacking positions. While Robben often disappears for long stretches, he only needs one chance to turn a match on its head.
It’s hard to see Real producing anything but its best. The pressure it has played under this entire season should have evaporated Saturday in the Camp Nou. Real is at home in the most comfortable of environments.
Bayern desperately wants to play the final on its home soil. Nonetheless, the Bundesliga power may turn out to have drawn the short straw this season. It is up against a team whose time may be now.