While Real Madrid was sealing their passage into the semi-final of the Champions League, in what has become their inimitably scrappy manner, Arturo Vidal watched the second leg on his phone from the stands at Allianz Arena. Bayern Munich had already confirmed their place in the last four with a goalless draw against Sevilla, but his former employer Juventus was on their way out of the tournament in controversial circumstances, and Vidal was not happy. His expression wore a look of “Oh no, not again!”
Some fans may have uttered the same words when Vidal’s current side Bayern Munich were drawn to play Madrid in the semis. This is the most played fixture in Champions League history – 18 times. Such is the familiarity to this tie that it is nearly inevitable. And still, Bayern must be relishing the opportunity. For Madrid, in line with their general continental supremacy in recent years, have enjoyed an upper hand over the German side.
The two clubs have met thrice in the knockout stages over the previous six seasons, and the Spanish giants have come out trumps in the last five matches. Although Bayern did manage to defeat Madrid on penalties in the 2012 semis, the losses for the Bundesliga champion in 2014 and last season are ulcerous memories.
It was the exit in the 2017 quarter-final, though, which drives Bayern’s urge towards redemption. Two dodgy, offside goals by Cristiano Ronaldo gave birth to a sense of injustice, in addition to other questionable refereeing decisions in the second leg. Bayern had lost the first leg 1-2 at home but they came back to take the tie into extra time in Madrid. However, the numerical disadvantage following Vidal’s sending-off had its say and the exhausted visitors eventually collapsed.
This time, though, Bayern are arguably more secure. Since Jupp Heynckes replaced Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern have produced a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes. More importantly, the squad is a happier unit now with none of the stars agitating for first-team starts or contract extensions. Heynckes had won the 'treble' with Bayern in 2012-13 and he is deeply respected by everyone at the club. At the age of 72, it took much persuading for him to come out of retirement, but his return has shown that he was the turning point for the team.
Now, Heynckes has the opportunity to defeat a club which he knows better than most. Not only has he defeated Madrid as a manager with four clubs, he also won the Champions League with the Los Blancos in 1998. In fact, in his 40-year-long managerial career, Heynckes has pitted his wits against six Madrid managers. Zinedine Zidane will be added to the list on Tuesday night.
Heynckes’ motivation will not be solely personal, though. Bayern Munich are the last club to become the European champion thrice in a row, from 1974-76. Madrid want to emulate the feat and, on current form, will be serious contenders to do so.
The challenge will come from the obvious source. Ronaldo has scored 25 goals in the last 15 games for his club; he has also found the net nine times in his previous six meetings against Bayern. Defender Jerome Boateng was unequivocal about the threat the Portuguese star represents. “Ronaldo is an unbelievable athlete – you can see that with the goals he scores and when he takes his shirt off. He has almost no weaknesses and is so good in the air. We'll only be able to stop him as a team.”
Boateng, though, will hope one of the stats associated with him proves to be a good omen. Bayern have not lost any of the 29 matches he has played this season. Furthermore, defensively, the five-time European champions are in a great place at the moment. Not only is the Boateng-Mats Hummels partnership working well at the centre, Joshua Kimmich has come leaps and bounds as a right-back while goalkeeper Sven Ulreich has proved to be more than an able deputy to the convalescing Manuel Neuer. David Alaba at left-back, though, is doubtful for Tuesday – if he fails the fitness test, Juan Bernat is likely to step in.
Bayern’s defensive security is boosted by the form of Javi Martinez, who has been a pillar of strength in defensive midfield. While Vidal will be once again following the proceedings from the stands owing to a knee injury, Thiago Alcantara and Thomas Muller are veritable threats from the midfield. The duo will also support the front trio of Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, and Franck Ribery. This is a Bayern side full of pedigree. In Lewandowski particularly, the team has a forward who’s scoring freely again; he currently stands on 39 goals in all competitions, only three less than Ronaldo.
Boosted by the form and quality at his disposal, Heynckes certainly believes he has the firepower to defeat Madrid in their eighth consecutive Champions League semi-final. For the record, the German manager has reached the final of the competition each of the last three times he has led a side in it. As Bayern prepares to maintain Heynckes’s stellar record and deny Madrid the chance of matching their own European ‘three-peat’, the German champion will feel confident that the Heynckes transformation has still a few more wheels to roll.
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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 17:30:39 IST