Champions League: Bayern Munich Finally Get A Real Test Against Madrid
Nobody knows how good Bayern Munich is. That’s the major problem with predicting and scouting the Champions League semifinals when the German giant takes on Real Madrid (+279) on Wednesday (kickoff 2:45 p.m. ET). Real Madrid are a well-known entity at this point. Roughly the same group of players has won three of the last four Champions League titles. Zinedine Zidane, now in his third year managing the squad, is seeking his third Champions League trophy in a row. At Bayern, the players might be mostly the same, but Jupp Heynckes has been in charge (this time) only since October.
Bayern (+100) are incredibly hard to evaluate because they’ve played very few meaningful games this season. The German super club has dominated the Bundesliga to a comical degree. They clinched the title weeks ago and currently have a 22-point lead on second-place Schalke. They have a +62 goal differential. Nobody else has a goal differential better than +20. And most of the absurd success has come since Heynckes took the wheel. Bayern were in second when he took over, and had drawn two games and lost one in their first seven. In the 24 games since, they’ve drawn twice and lost once.
Heynckes’ runaway success has meant that Bayern Munich have been in third gear for months. By the time the Bavarians hit the Bundesliga’s midseason break, they were up 11 points. By the end of February they were up 19. And, so far, their Champions League matchups haven’t exactly been challenging. In the Round of 16 they waltzed past an exceedingly mediocre Besiktas side 8-1 on aggregate. Then in the quarterfinals they drew Sevilla, a team that despite defeating Manchester United to get there, are having a down season, as they’ve currently dropped to eighth in La Liga (albeit with a game in hand on seventh-place Getafe). Bayern barely woke up for the matchup, winning the first leg 2-1 on the road before barely showing up for a 0-0 in the return draw.
There are benefits to being able to cruise for months at a time. Bayern have had ample time to rest and rotate their already deep squad. That’s particularly important when two of their most important players are Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery who are 34 and 35 years old, respectively. It’s a lot easier to have geriatric wingers when they have to show up at their superstar best for games that matter only a few times a year.
But, there are also drawbacks. Real Madrid are a much better team than anybody that Bayern his played in months. Plus, the stakes are also much higher, and it remains to be seen if Bayern can rise to the occasion. Madrid don’t do anything fancy. They get the ball, they get lots of great players forward and then Cristiano Ronaldo gets into dangerous positions and hits the ball really hard at the net. It’s tremendously effective because Ronaldo is singularly great at scoring goals. It’s impossible to tell how Bayern Munich will react to a team that doesn’t cede possession to them because they haven’t faced a team like that in months.
It’s not even clear what personnel Bayern will use. Even without the injured Arturo Vidal, Heynckes has a variety of options to choose from. James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller, Thiago Alcantara, Corentin Tolisso, Sebastian Rudy, Javi Martinez, and even, last weekend, defender Niklas Sule have spent time on the three-man unit. Martinez is probably a lock to start at the base of the unit with some combination of Mueller, Rodriguez and Thiago in front of him. There’s also a chance that Mueller could start on the right wing instead of Robben, allowing both Rodriguez and Thiago to play in midfield.
At their best, Bayern are a truly scary team, with the ability to attack from multiple angles — in multiple ways — with tons of attackers amplifying each other until eventually one creates a crack in even the best defense. It’s just simply impossible to know if Bayern will bring their best. Contrast that with Real Madrid, who even though they just barely snuck by Juventus in the last round, still had to beat the best team in Italy. The round before that they had to get by Paris Saint-Germain, France’s top team.
It’s possible that Real Madrid aren’t as good as Bayern, but they’ve had to pull out all the stops to beat big-time opposition way more recently. Real Madrid may not be the better team in this matchup, but they’ve certainly played better recently. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be here.
Top photo: Bayern’s James Rodriguez