Thursday 17 January 2019

Real belief is a potent weapon - even when they are not firing

Cristiano Ronaldo handles the ball resulting in a free-kick and his subsequent goal being disallowed. Photo: Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo handles the ball resulting in a free-kick and his subsequent goal being disallowed. Photo: Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

We've seen this story before… and it's increasingly difficult not to think it will finish the same way.

Once again, and for the sixth match in a row, Bayern Munich lost to Real Madrid. Once again, in yet another match for the fifth season in a row, the Spanish champions found a way to win despite not doing all that much or looking all that much.

That the usual detail of Cristiano Ronaldo scoring remarkably didn't happen - and it just didn't matter.

Real just have that know-how, and that assumed knowledge of their utter superiority. That has been the case in so many Champions League games over the past half-decade, but feels all the more pronounced with these specific opponents.

Because at the core of this tie, a meeting between clubs who are both two of the competition's five historic giants and two of the modern game's eight super clubs, is also a curious dynamic. It is based on their almost unmoving positions at the top of the game.

Bayern are the Real Madrid of Germany, but to an even greater degree, since they don't have the challenge of a Barcelona to keep them in check: assured, bullish, absolutely certain of their own brilliance and right to victory.

And yet it is arguably precisely because of the lack of such a challenge that, in recent years in the Champions League, they seem to have an intense inferiority complex about Real Madrid. They just come up against a bigger fish.

It wasn't always like this. When the two clubs repeatedly came up against each other in the knockout stages at the turn of the millennium, they repeatedly just exchanged big blows. Was the 2013-14 thrashing that traumatic for the Germans? It is difficult to explain how it started, but its results seem one of a few ways to explain this.

What should be so galling for Bayern was that they were in command, and had spotted a glaring Real weakness. And this was even after one of their better players had to go off.

The enforced substitution of Arjen Robben allowed Joshua Kimmich into the area the Dutch winger was supposed to punish, and there was arguably greater space specifically because he had gone off. Would Marcelo have been so willing to just jog back had it been Robben powering forward rather than Kimmich?

And, once the full-back had given Bayern the lead - taking advantage of the sloppy guessing of Keylor Navas - the German champions were in full control. Much like last season in the quarter-final first leg, they were creating so many good chances.

Much like last season, though, they were missing all of them. That was most frustrating from one of the players who has long been desperate to go to Real Madrid, in Robert Lewandowski. Yet he somehow missed a close-range header in the first half, and then an even better opportunity late on.

Would he have missed such chances in less charged games in their domestic league? Real, meanwhile, like to think that their players don't suffer such doubt.

The recent history of the Champions League has offered overwhelming evidence of this. Once again, Real were doing very little in a game - but never once felt like that. Marcelo personified this.

He could so easily go from that questionable contribution to the Bayern goal, to powering the ball into the net from distance with the type of volley that only comes from vigorous self-belief.

Once they had the advantage of an away goal, it was as if they were never going to lose it. They were only going to win, as seemed to come to them so easily with the Marco Asensio goal. His introduction was just another inspired Zinedine Zidane decision in this competition. No doubt there, either. He saw and just acted.

It's now difficult to see the tie ending with anything other than a Real victory. Bayern don't just have to overcome a 2-1 away-goal deficit, after all, but their own doubt in the face of such fearsome Real assurance. That is also likely what Liverpool will have to overcome, if they get that far. We've seen the story before. (© Independent News Service)

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