A few months ago I posited that FC Bayern Munich could be kings of Europe again this season in the Champions League. This was after they had given Manchester City a rude awakening to footballing life in Europe’s premier competition and were looking like the clear winners in the so-called ‘group of death.’ Six months on, FCB are still on course to be crowned champions of Europe for the first time since 2001. Standing before them and the final on their home turf on May 19th is a two-legged tie with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
This is the first big test for Bayern in Europe this season. As well as they played in the group stages, it’s fair to say that with hindsight their group didn’t really deserve that ‘group of death’ tag. Roberto Mancini’s City were a disappointment in their first season in the competition and set on completely the wrong track by the Carlos Tevez affair, while Villarreal seemed to be the whipping boys of almost every competition they’ve played in this season. Napoli were tricky and unpredictable opponents but not strong enough to really test the seasoned Champions League competitors from Munich. In the first knockout round, Bayern cruised past Basel by a six-goal aggregate margin, and then produced two professional displays to knock out Olympique Marseilles. But as well as they played, and reaching the semi-final deserves praise, they haven’t had to beat any side that one might call a ‘big name.’ Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Kaka and Co will surely be a hugely different proposition for Bayern, even if the Reds do have home advantage.
So just how strong is Bayern’s team? The spine of the current FCB line-up strongly resembles that of the eleven that Louis van Gaal took to the final in 2010. Holger Badstuber, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller and Ivica Olic all started that final in the Bernabeu, while Mario Gomez came off the bench. As dangerous as the Madrid team is, they lag behind in the experience stakes: of the eleven that started the recent 4-1 derby win over Atlético Madrid, only Ronaldo, Kaka and Xabi Alonso had featured in a Champions League final before. And not only do Bayern have a large chunk of experience to tap into, their eleven will be strengthened in key positions. Manuel Neuer is an established German international and one of the world’s best keepers, while Franck Ribéry, who missed the 2-0 defeat to Inter Milan through suspension but has been in scintillating form in Europe this season, will be raring to go after being rested at the weekend. With these additions, and a manager in Jupp Heynckes who knows Real ‘inside-out’ from his 1998 triumph with them in this very competition, a picture emerges of a formidable team indeed.
They have won eight and drawn one of nine home games against Real Madrid, and enjoy a 100% record in the Allianz Arena in Europe this season...
The biggest problem for Bayern will be making sure they have a clean sheet to protect going into the second leg. It almost sounds slightly monotonous, but the stats prove just how tough a task this will be for them: Mourinho’s team has scored 107 goals this season, including 17 in their last five games; they have failed to score in only two of their 49 matches in 2011-12; and Ronaldo has 53 goals to his name already this campaign. But the Bavarians can boast some telling stats of their own. They have won eight and drawn one of nine home games against Real Madrid, and enjoy a 100% record in the Allianz Arena in Europe this season; Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Mainz 05 was only the seventh time they have been failed to score at home since moving to the stadium for the start of the 2006/07 season, and Mario Gomez has scored eleven goals in the competition so far – three more than Ronaldo. And Arjen Robben may be suffering from something of a crisis of confidence after missing a late penalty against Dortmund last week that effectively sewed up the Meisterschaft for BVB, but he almost took Bayern to the final single-handedly in 2010. His goals against Fiorentina, Lyon and, of course, Manchester United on that run still live long in the memory. He willl surely have a point to prove against his former club and a manager who offloaded him to Real from Chelsea in the first place.
Bayern may have conceded the Bundesliga title to Dortmund, but that thought will be as far as possible from the players’ minds when they line up for a semi-final against Real Madrid, a classic Champions league fixture if ever there was one, and on home soil no less. But FCB fans should been warned. In 2003, Manchester United went into their tie with Real in high spirits, also expecting to reach the final on home soil. That time, the other Ronaldo inspired Real to a 6-5 aggregate win, scoring a decisive, and truly memorable, hat-trick at Old Trafford in the second leg. I wonder what odds you’d get on a Cristiano hat-tick this time around?
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