Preview: From Leverkusen to Madrid
Keeping the right balance between Bundesliga and Champions League has scarcely been this difficult. Nationally, Bayern are almost done yet again. At five games left and a 10-point lead, it’s only a matter of time until they are formally crowned. And that in and of itself makes a pretty clear statement about the German record champion’s situation.
It’s easy to blame others for one’s own failures in crucial moments. However, Bayern’s most successful times in the Champions League have always happened alongside tight competition in the national league.
In 2010, the league was won with a 5 point margin and Bayern reached the Champions League final. In 2012, there was another final, and the German champion was called Borussia Dortmund, a team who made it necessary for Bayern to be absolutely focused in every game.
2013, finally, can be seen as a result from the previous years. Bayern had made changes, recalibrated themselves, and started a full-on attack on Dortmund. The end result: the treble, won with a huge margin in the league to slightly contradict our theory.
It’s difficult to tell, therefore, how much influence the competition in the domestic league actually had on the fact that Germany’s serial champion failed to go through in the Champions League against Spanish teams three times in a row in the past years. After all, there were explanations for each case that take into consideration other arguments than the one just presented.
In 2014, Guardiola’s first year, Real Madrid won because the manager had made mistakes that he admitted later on. The following year resulted in another fairly clear 3-0 loss against Barcelona in Barcelona because the players just weren’t fit enough to withstand for a full 90 minutes. The personnel situation in particular made it impossible to face the Catalans on the same level.
Another year later, Atlético was Bayern’s final stop on the road to the final. In the return leg in particular, the team showed themselves at their very best, but still failed to win. It would be tedious to tie these nuances to the lack of competition within the league, but there’s surely a bit of truth to it.
A better league certainly wouldn’t hurt Bayern. Often, the team played at only a fraction of their actual potential, with the handy excuse of saving energy for the really important games, or resting key players.
But even this plan doesn’t always work, as shown by the fact that Bayern were missing crucial players in the game against Real Madrid yet again. In addition, Ancelotti preferred to miss out on the all-important rhythm – a problem not just for the first eleven, who’ve been varying their speed between Bundesliga and Champions League, but also and particularly the bench players.
Coman, Costa, and Bernat were subbed in against Real Madrid but couldn’t show their full potential because they’d had hardly any game time before that. A deep squad isn’t good for much if bench players are out of form.
Lewandowski was also sorely missed against Madrid. The Polish international couldn’t be replaced, especially not by a Thomas Müller who was made to play as if he were Lewandowski. Müller was overwhelmed by the situation and couldn’t process the balls he received. Ancelotti has been failing to properly integrate Müller into Bayern’s system all season – a fact he will now have to face.
The substitutions in the quarter-final seemed doubtful at best, too. When the guests gained more and more control in midfield during the second half, Ancelotti didn’t react. Alonso, who was getting progressively worse throughout the game, was only taken off when Javi Martínez saw his second yellow card. And even then, Bayern’s manager made a disputable decision in subbing on Bernat; while it was fine to make Alaba move to centre-back, the move weakened the midfield.
A disconnected Müller kept playing, Thiago and Vidal were overtasked by Modric and Kroos, and Bayern failed to get a grip on the game from then on. What happened afterwards was exactly what he had explicitly warned of in our preview: Madrid took over the control in the centre.
Ancelotti could have reacted to the overthrown static in the game by making his team play in a more compact formation, with players like Kimmich ready to do exactly that. But he let his team continue to play as if Martínez had never left the pitch.
As always, of course, it is worth mentioning that the story of the game plays a pivotal role. Had Vidal headed in the 2-0, or scored from the penalty spot soon after, we – nor anyone else – would be speaking about the manager’s potentially wrong decisions.
For a long time, the game was a game at eye-level with a slight surplus in chances for Bayern. A 2-0 lead after the first half would have been lucky, but also necessary. The missed penalty and the early equaliser in the second half turned the game on its head. Real got the all-important momentum and Martínez’ present, and then things went the way all Bayern fans had feared they would.
What was shocking was the (lack of) reaction by the Bayern players. Collapsing on themselves like that after the 1-2 for Real can’t be explained with the league, Lewandowski, the game’s story, rhythm, or the manger’s decisions. A team as experienced as the German record champion simply can be expected to do more in situations like that.
Many factors played a role on Wednesday evening, and how each of them gets weighted is up to every spectator individually. One thing is for certain, however: Ancelotti’s sentiment after the disappointing loss that “We are still alive”.
Bayern will likely rest several players in Leverkusen; due to the comfortable situation in the league, the game isn’t all that important. It’s a stop on the road to Madrid, a chance to catch their breath and heal mental wounds.
In the Bernabeu, Bayern will have to show their game face on Tuesday and trump their already fairly good performance from the first leg’s first half. Only then will it be possible to turn this quarter-final around.
Nothing is lost yet. If Hummels and Lewandowski manage to get back into the team on time, it will be interesting to see what Bayern can achieve. They can prove in this game that they’re still at the same level as the biggest teams in Europe.
Scoring at least two goals and winning with a goal difference of at least one is not an easy task, especially when faced with Real Madrid. But if there’s one team that can do it, it’s FC Bayern. An early goal, and this encounter’s story could change yet again – and this time, maybe in Bayern’s favour.
- Bayern won’t win the game.
- Ancelotti will start with at least four new players.
- Bernat, Sanches and Kimmich will start.
- The record champion will score at least one goal.
- Alaba will start in central defence.
Only two correct predictions in Wednesday’s game. Total: 99/185.