One step away. One very, very big step. Bayern travel to Madrid aware of the fact that even a draw would be enough to be a part of the final, knowing that even a draw will be horribly difficult to reach. Whether it can be done remains uncertain, what’s sure is that every player will give it everything and, barring a complete disaster, return to Munich with the head held high.
Personally, my yearly Champions League expectation is to make it to the quarterfinals, any Bayern win beyond that is a nice bonus. So, no matter what happens on Wednesday, this CL campaign has been a success in my opinion. Nine months ago, I asked what your goal is for this season’s Champions League. 42% of the people who voted said the semifinal is a good, realistic target. Not only have the players managed to make that come true, they even won the first leg against a giant, unarguably one of Europe’s two best teams these days, a win Bayern fans will still remember in five years. Now it’s the question whether this memory will be overshadowed by an even bigger success or remain in our hearts with a bittersweet taste.
Since it’s only been a week, there isn’t much to be told about the two teams’ recent developments. Bayern beat Bremen 2-1 in a meaningless match where most regulars were rested for at least 60 minutes, Franck Ribery almost single-handedly decided the game with an assist and a last-minute goal. No injuries, everybody but Daniel van Buyten and Breno is fit and Bastian Schweinsteiger another bit closer to 100%.
Real Madrid’s weekend was a slightly bit more significant. In what turned out to be the decider for the Spanish league title, they beat Barcelona 2-1 and now have a 7-point advantage with four matches to be played. Sami Khedira and Cristiano Ronaldo scored the goals. Not a single player was rested, Jose Mourinho fielded the same eleven as in Munich and didn’t make a single substitution until the 75th minute. So while there’s the mental advantage of having just beaten the big rival in a close match, they also have to deal with the physical disadvantage of being the more exhausted side. But as we all saw in Bayern’s second leg match against Olympique Marseille (OM’s Ligue 1 match prior to the second leg was postponed, giving them an entire week to rest), this doesn’t mean much.
Despite the result of the first leg, the hosts are still favorites to proceed to the final. At Bernabeu, Madrid’s CL record this season is perfect, with five wins in five matches and a goal difference of 22-5. The home record against Bayern isn’t much worse, having won six of the so far nine meetings. History also tells us that this wasn’t the first time Madrid lost the first leg in Munich by a one-goal deficit. In 2002 (2-1) and 1988 (3-2), similar results weren’t enough, Real Madrid won both second legs 2-0. If you’re looking for a decent bet, this might be it.
However, it’s impossible not to sense a certain amount of respect coming from Spain. From the Madrid-phile newspapers to Jose Mourinho’s spokesman (or whatever that man on Twitter is supposed to be), they all wanna make sure that Bayern fear the hell of Bernabeu. If they were absolutely convinced of winning the match, they would never invest so much time, thoughts and feelings to create such an atmosphere. Instead, they simply wouldn’t care about the opponent. But they do, and that’s great to see. They are nervous, deep inside they know that being eliminated is a realistic fate.
Without starting another rant about UEFA’s suspension policies, many players are one booking away from missing the potential final. The evil guys who average one yellow card every four matches are, for Bayern, David Alaba, Holger Badstuber, Jerome Boateng, Luiz Gustavo, Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller, and, for Madrid, Xabi Alonso, Fabio Coentrao, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Ramos. Option 1: two teams scared of any kind of physicality try to avoid any yellow card in order to not miss any players in the biggest match of the season. Option 2: a hard-fought semifinal means that we’ll see a, for no real reason, incredibly weakened team entering the pitch to play the Champions League final. Way to turn the biggest matches of the year into a joke, UEFA.
Jupp Heynckes will surely field the same eleven players as he did last week, meaning that Thomas Müller returns to the bench as a potential super sub. The Alexander Zickler of 2012? Jose Mourinho might make a few changes, I’m mainly thinking of Fabio Coentrao being replaced by Marcelo, but, all in all, his lineup will be a very familiar one.
Lahm – Boateng – Badstuber – Alaba
Gustavo – Schweinsteiger
Robben – Kroos – Ribery
Ronaldo – Özil – di Maria
Alonso – Khedira
Coentrao (Marcelo) – Pepe – Ramos – Arbeloa
The players in orange are the ones who are one booking away from missing the final. Fun, isn’t it?