Wednesday 22 November 2017

Class deficit no longer a worry in Bavaria

Bayern Munich are revelling in their role as Real Madrid's bogey team, writes Raphael Honigstein

'Pep Guardiola's excellent record against Madrid is naturally considered an advantage'
'Pep Guardiola's excellent record against Madrid is naturally considered an advantage'

Raphael Honigstein

Pep Guardiola on one side, Real Madrid on the other. There should really be only one word for it. But in this special case, there are three. "The Clasico de Europa is back," wrote Marca after Bayern Munich were paired with the Spanish giants in the semi-final draw.

It's the 11th European Cup/ Champions League tie between these clubs in 37 years, the sixth semi-final (the Germans have won three) and the results of this epic series have often come to define eras. Now, Guardiola's involvement adds a layer of intrigue that almost feels like an overkill: there's been enough history and histrionics between Die Koniglichen (the royals, as Madrid are deferentially referred to in Germany) and the Kings of the Bundesliga without Barcelona coming into it as well.

Familiarity has, strangely enough, bred content in Bavaria. Carlo Ancelotti's side were widely regarded as the best opponents for the Reds; the sense of excitement bordered on euphoria when Madrid were confirmed as the opponents 10 days ago. Thomas Muller was even asked whether the Spaniards represented "the dream draw". The German international tried to laugh off the suggestion ("I was under the impression they didn't do dream draws in the semi-final," he said) but the optimism among the supporters was unprecedented.

Madrid's meek 2-0 defeat in the second quarter-final leg against Borussia Dortmund, coupled with the view that their attacking game suited Bayern much more than the attritional style of Chelsea and Atletico, has made Madrid "appear like a footballing lightweight and rank outsider", Der Spiegel noted, with a degree of suspicion. Bayern's improvement since their last meeting with Los Merengues at the same stage in 2012 goes some way to explaining the holders' confidence.

Then, they scraped through on penalties, only to lose to Chelsea in the Allianz Arena in the same cruel manner. The following year they won the treble in thrilling style, and they are on course to repeat that feat this season – as are Real – after winning the league in record time and advancing to the DFB Pokal final in Berlin. Guardiola's excellent record against Madrid (he won nine and drew four out of 15 clasicos in Spain) is naturally considered an advantage, too, but more important than the results themselves is perhaps the way they were achieved. Barcelona's 6-2 win at the Bernabeu in May 2009 was the harbinger of the team's domination and of Guardiola's rise to the very top.

The 43-year-old's ways of winning at Bayern might not have been as consistently beautiful as advertised but his obsessive attention to detail has seen him find a way in every single game that his team needed to win this season. Exploiting the opposition's frailties has been his speciality. Madrid, the Dortmund games have shown, have quite a few.

The addition of this much-coveted manager to a squad full of quality in the summer has also freed Bayern from the inferiority complex they had developed during frequent meetings with Florentino Perez's galacticos in the early 2000s. Uli Hoeness derided them as "a circus, a monkey theatre that has nothing do to with football," when Madrid signed David Beckham in 2003.

His team saw themselves as the anti-galacticos, a bunch of good honest pros, brought together with financial prudence in mind. The distaste for the Perez project might have been keenly felt but Bayern's increased spending in the wake of their move to the Allianz Arena stadium has since betrayed their underlying emotion as that of simple envy.

Whereas Hoeness had to be content with amassing the best of German talent, Madrid bought all the international ones. They were – and still are – the Bayern of Europe. The fact that the Reds have more often than not been able to overcome that deficit of individual class, especially at home – Madrid have one measly draw to show from 10 trips to Munich – has been a source of immense pride at Sabener Strasse. "Of the three possible semi-final opponents, we like them least," admitted former Madrid striker Emilio Butragueno.

Football, however, has a tendency to wreak havoc with assumptions. Paul Breitner's categorical verdict ("Bayern will go through if they play at their normal level," the former player for both clubs stated) has started to sound a lot more negative in the wake of two Bundesliga defeats (at Augsburg and at home to Dortmund) that Guardiola blamed on himself.

The "if" is now the imperative word. The manager's honesty in declaring the league over has seen the "March champions" (Abendzeitung) lose their focus and rhythm. "We have to get out of our comfort zone," said the sporting director Matthias Sammer.

There's also doubt over the availability of 'keeper Manuel Neuer, who is nursing a calf injury.

Guardiola has been trying to manage expectations after he had stressed his ambition to outdo Jupp Heynckes ("we have to win five trophies") earlier this season. The point was made that Madrid might be more vulnerable in defence but were also best-positioned to hurt Bayern at the other end.

"Together with Dortmund, they are the best counterattacking team in the world," he warned. "If we don't control Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – wir sind kaputt."

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