Note: Be sure to also check out Corey’s extensive preview over at RMFB.
On Tuesday, Real Madrid meet Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal first leg, in one of the classic European match-ups of this century. Having vanquished CSKA and APOEL, Real Madrid now find themselves in this, a match-up that actually feels like a big European tie (with due respect to CSKA and APOEL).
Two-legged encounters between Los Merengues and FC Hollywood have always been pulsating affairs, whilst off-the-pitch banter and mudslinging have tended to add an aura of tension and resentment to proceedings. Be it ex-Barca player Mark Van Bommel’s ill-advised decision to make an “up yours” gesture to the Bernabeu crowd in 2007, or Oliver Kahn’s indignation with what he called Real Madrid’s “showboating football” in 2002, meetings between the two sides have always involved plenty of controversy.
This season, the narrative will be further enriched by the fact that one of Bayern’s main attacking threats – Arjen Robben – played for Real Madrid not too long ago and will have a point to prove, while two of Madrid’s key players – Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira – are German internationals who regularly play alongside Bayern’s own German stars for Die Maanschaft, the national team. One can be sure that Ozil, Khedira, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Mueller, etc. will cast aside the friendships forged during Germany’s memorable run to the 2010 World Cup semifinals and prepare to do battle.
The cross-pollination between the two teams isn’t just limited to the players either. Bayern’s current coach Jupp Heynckes wrote his name into the history books at Real Madrid when he led the team to the Champions League title in 1998, ending a 31-year drought. Despite this mammoth achievement, he was sacked soon after as a result of the team’s poor showing in La Liga. One of the fringe players in his Real Madrid squad that season was a certain Aitor Karanka, who is now assistant coach at Real Madrid. Karanka made his first-team debut at Athletic Bilbao five years earlier, under Heynckes. Fast-forward to 2010: Bayern Munich lose the Champions League final to an Inter Milan coached by none other than Real Madrid’s current entrenador Jose Mourinho.
The last time these two sides met was in the Round of 16 back in 2007. The first leg at the Bernabeu saw Real Madrid secure a nervy 3-2 victory, with David Beckham’s fabulous performance giving Real Madrid a barely-deserved victory. What happened in the second leg has long been burned into Madridistas’ memories, despite our very best efforts to forget it forever.
Real Madrid kicked off. Fernando Gago passed the ball back to Roberto Carlos, who miscontrolled the ball, ceding possession to Bayern’s Hasan Salihamidzic. Salihamidzic dribbled into the empty space and squared the ball to Roy Makaay, who swept the ball into the goal past Iker Casillas. 10 seconds into kick-off – with many fans still stepping on toes to get to their seats – Bayern Munich had taken the lead. In doing so, they set a Champions League record that will take some beating. Real Madrid went on to lose 2-1 and finished level on aggregate with Bayern (4-4), but got knocked out due to the away goals rule. Sadly, Roberto Carlos’ mistake hastened his departure from the club, with the Brazilian legend claiming he felt like the scapegoat for Real Madrid’s exit.
Madrid fans will hope their current crop of stars will be able to make up for the 2007 disaster by defeating Bayern Munich so they can return to the spectacular Allianz Arena in May to contest the final; a final that could see them take on eternal rivals Barcelona in what would be the most eagerly anticipated Champions League final in history. And while the tie looks evenly matched, it must be said that Real Madrid’s form this season gives them a slight edge over their Bavarian opposition. And look, Arsene Wenger agrees with me.
The teams go into the clash on the back of very differing performances in their respective domestic leagues. Bayern Munich’s midweek match saw them lose 1-0 to Bundesliga title rivals Borussia Dortmund. Arjen Robben had a nightmare game, playing Dortmund’s goalscorer onside for the goal, missing a glorious scoring chance when it seemed easier to score than to miss, and seeing a penalty saved. The enduring moment from the match was Dortmund defender Neven Subotic getting in Robben’s face after the penalty miss. Bayern then drew their weekend match against Mainz 0-0, meaning their Bundesliga titles hopes are effectively over.
Real Madrid on the other hand go into this game with crucial back-to-back wins against Atletico Madrid and Sporting Gijon under their belt, wins that have secured Los Merengues’ 4-point lead at the top of the table and have ensured that morale is high going into Munich. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a memorable hat-trick against Atletico and scored against Gijon, and is going into the game in spectacular form.
That being said, form often goes out of the window in matches like the one coming up on Tuesday. A number of other factors will determine whether Bayern will contest the final in their own stadium, or whether Madrid will be making a second trip to Munich come May 19th:
1. Bayern Munich’s suspect defence
Over the two quarterfinal legs against Marseille and the midweek clash against Borussia Dortmund, Bayern displayed various defensive shortcomings that will need to be addressed if the Bavarians are to contain Madrid’s record-breaking strikeforce. Since Daniel Van Buyten was sidelined with a foot injury in January, Bayern’s aerial defence has looked rather suspect. Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng have both looked uncertain against incoming crosses. When the likes of Mathieu Valbuena and Shinji Kagawa – neither exactly giants of the modern game – are granted free headers, it’s a problem. The likes of Ronaldo and Ramos should look to exploit this using their own aerial prowess, while set piece deliveries from Ozil, Alonso and Di Maria will need to be on the mark.
Aerial shortcomings aside, Bayern’s central defensive pairing lack composure on the ball when pressured. Both Badstuber and Boateng were guilty of some nervy moments when faced with Marseille’s modest pressing. They could be forced into costly mistakes when faced with the high-speed breakneck pressing of Ronaldo, Higuain/Benzema and Di Maria.
2. Madrid’s midfield shape
Mourinho would do well to observe Borussia Dortmund’s midfield shape against Bayern Munich midweek. Upon ceding possession, the Borussians were impressively quick in altering their formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, with the midfield flat four helping to defend against Bayern’s wing menaces Ribery and Robben. Madrid’s midfield positioning will be crucial to ensuring that “Robbery” aren’t given a free run at wingbacks Marcelo and Arbeloa, who lack defensive positioning and pace respectively. What happens on the flanks may well decide the outcome of the tie…
3. Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo/Coentrao vs. Robben and Lahm
Direct clashes like these are what make big Champions League nights so special. The confrontation down Madrid’s left flank (Bayern’s right flank) is a truly mouthwatering prospect, and the pairing which wins this battle will do their team a hell of a lot of good. While Ronaldo, Robben and Lahm are dead-certain to start, it will be interesting to see whether Mourinho opts for the superior attacking threat of Marcelo or the more defensively sound Coentrao at left-back. Marcelo’s rampaging runs up the left flank in support of Ronaldo could be used to force Robben back, therefore diminishing his own attacking threat. The significant attacking threat of Robben/Lahm could be neutralized should Ronaldo and Marcelo have a great game down that flank.
Having said that, should Robben receive a quick pass while Marcelo is stranded upfield, Real Madrid will be in trouble. While the likes of Alonso and Khedira will do their best to cover for Marcelo, neither of them will be able to catch Robben if he escapes them.
Even when Marcelo is in his defensive position, he will have to curb his tendency to commit to tackles too early. Against Robben, this would be suicidal as the Dutchman will simply turn inside out, leave Marcelo on his backside and eat up the cow’s pasture in front of him before squaring for the likes of Gomez. Marcelo would be better advised to hold his position and force Robben into cutting inside, where the likes of Alonso, Khedira, Ramos and Pepe have a decent chance of blocking his dribble, shot or pass.
If Mourinho opts for Coentrao in Munich, it will mean a safer ploy on paper; a defender who won’t be able to push Robben and Lahm back as much as Marcelo, and won’t combine as well with Cristiano Ronaldo, but one who has decent positional sense and defensive ability.
4. Ribery and Alaba vs. Di Maria and Arbeloa
Arbeloa will have to have one of his best games of the season to contain Ribery. Arbeloa’s form has dipped a little in recent weeks, and he will have to be ultra-vigilant to stop Scarface, who has been one of the most productive players in Europe this season. Ribery did not get any change from Marseille left back Cesar Azpilicueta in the quarterfinal first leg; however Azpilicueta has more pace than Arbeloa, and there could be a case for Coentrao at right-back, although I doubt this will actually happen. Ribery will occasionally be fed aerial passes over the top from Bayern’s talented young left-back David Alaba. Arbeloa should be alert to ensure that Ribery does not get past him and onto the ball with open space ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Di Maria will almost certainly start on Tuesday. His unpredictable, unbalancing dribbling and passing will be very difficult for young Alaba to handle, as will his pace on the break. Also, his defensive work-rate and running will be key to ensuring that Arbeloa is not up against Ribery on his own.
5. Xabi Alonso
Madrid’s most important player is not record-breaking goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo or captain and goalkeeping legend Iker Casillas, but deep-lying central midfielder Xabi Alonso. Madrid suffer from an overdependence on Alonso; when the Basque isn’t playing or isn’t playing well, the quality of Madrid’s play drops down a few notches. Indeed Alonso’s vision, distribution and intelligence are fundamental to this team, to the point that Madrid looks an entirely different (inferior) side without him. Heynckes will have taken note of this, and will be thinking long and hard about how to neutralize Alonso. If Bayern find a way to nullify Alonso’s presence, they will become favourites to progress.
6. Mario Gomez
Gomez has been one of the most prolific goalscorers in Europe this season and has 11 goals in this season’s edition of the Champions League. A classic target man with an imposing physical presence and clinical finishing ability inside the penalty box, Gomez is rarely seen involved in build-up play, providing assists to teammates or beating defenders with pace or trickery. But he can be counted on to put the ball in the back of the net.
Bayern’s attacking shape is perfectly set up to give Gomez the best chance to get himself on the scoresheet. Ribery and Robben stretch the defence, while Mueller makes intelligent runs into the box to drag defenders with him. This stretch-and-drag combination creates space for Gomez to exploit. Madrid’s defenders as well as Alonso and Khedira will have to be focused for the entire 90 minutes to ensure that Gomez isn’t given free sights on goal, as he rarely misses.
7. Individual brilliance
Both teams are loaded with some of the best players in the world in their respective positions. Their moments of individual brilliance will go a long way in taking their teams through to the final.
Few players have outshone Gomez in terms of goalscoring this season, but Cristiano Ronaldo is one of them. He has found his range from distance in recent weeks, and his swishing, dipping freekicks and long-range rockets are incredibly difficult for any goalkeeper to contend with. Meanwhile, Kaka is having his best season since joining Real Madrid. His intelligence, directness and shooting ability could play a big role in the tie even if the Brazilian starts on the bench. If he does start on the bench, it will be Mesut Ozil who will be charged with pulling Madrid’s attacking strings. Ozil’s vision and flair will be fundamental; if he finds his peak passing range in Munich, Bayern Munich will be in a world of trouble.
I’ve already mentioned Ribery, Robben and Gomez, but the leadership and performance of club captain Philipe Lahm will be very important for Bayern. If Lahm is able to keep Ronaldo in check, the Portuguese star could cut a frustrated figure. If Madrid do take the lead, Lahm will have to ensure that his teammates heads don’t drop.
The individual performances of the two goalkeepers will also be key. Casillas has been the best goalkeeper in the world for some years now, but Neuer has arguably been the best goalkeeper in Europe this season. Both custodians will likely be kept busy over the two legs, and the team whose shot-stopper performs better could be the one that makes it through to the final.
And finally, there is the grand tactical battle between Mourinho and Heynckes. Heynckes has been around forever but has won few major trophies in his coaching career. As I mentioned earlier, his Champions League triumph with Real Madrid 14 years ago remains his biggest achievement. Mou on the other hand has racked up the silverware everywhere he’s been, and won’t want to leave Real Madrid before winning the Champions League. The two coaches’ tactical decisions will play as big a role as their players’ on-field-performances. Will Mourinho employ a three-man midfield? Will Higuain or Benzema get the start in Munich? Or both? Will Heynckes risk the classy but unfit Schweinsteiger or stick to a midfield duo of Kroos and Luiz Gustavo? Come Tuesday, everything will become clear.
There’s nothing else to say, except: bring it on. I leave you with an image of…. Cribenguainaldo!!!