If Tuesday is Bayern’s last home game of Champions League, 2011-12 will be considered a failure. Their recent league loss to Borussia Dortmund made regaining the Bundesliga a pipe dream, and while the German Cup is still in play, only an appearance in the Champions League final will validate their season. With the May 19 finale slated for their home field, Allianz Arena, making the last two has always been obligatory.
Rightfully, Real Madrid is seen as the favorite, but the class in Bayern’s side cannot be ignored. Whereas most of Real’s opponents wouldn’t place one player in José Mourinho’s lineup, a number of Bayern stars would compete for spots. In some minds, Manuel Neuer is Iker Casillas’ equal in goal. Defender Phillip Lahm and midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger would slot right in, while room could be make for attackers Franck Ribery and Thomas Müller. With Mario Gomez of a similar caliber to Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, most of Bayern’s XI can be seen as equal (or better) to their opposing number.
And then there’s Bayern’s most talented player, Arjen Robben. Along with fellow Netherlands international Wesley Sneijder, Robben was castoff by Real Madrid before the 2009-10 season. Both players tried to stay at Real, with many asking the obvious: Why wouldn’t a team want to keep Robben and Sneijder? But with the latest Florentino Pérez reign having just bought Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso, recoup some of the €253 million outlay became more important. Real eventually convinced their Dutch stars to move on.
Less than a year later, both were back at the Bernabeu, Bayern eventually losing to Sneijder’s Inter Milan in the 2010 Champions League final. That year, Real Madrid went out to Lyon in the round of 16, their last tournament before recruiting Mourinho.
Tuesday will be the first time El Real has faced Robben or Sneijder since their sales.
“I had some very good years at Madrid,” Robben told Spanish outlet Marca. “It’s a great club, and it’s obviously special to face my old teammates, but I have been at Bayern for a while now and I am happy here. I am thinking above all about getting to the final, whoever the rival is.”
Above all, it’s about getting to the final. It’s not about the next game. It’s not about winning Champions League. It’s not even about the unique challenges of facing one of the world’s two best teams. Even for Robben, a man who has every motive to make the semifinal personal, a Madrid matchup is inconsequential next to the ultimate goal. Bayern must make a Munich final.
If they’re to do so, Robben has to lead the way. As much talent as Bayern has, Robben is on another level. At his best, he’s as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, his left-foot arguably the game’s most dangerous weapon (as Manchester United found out two years ago). The only things keeping him from sharing Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s rarified air are consistency and health, neither of which should factor against Real Madrid. As he showed two years ago, a healthy Robben can carry a team through this tournament.
How Real deals with Bayern’s dangerman is José Mourinho’s first big decision, one he’s likely already made. At left back, he has to choose between the attack-oriented Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao, who is better suited for a more traditional fullback’s responsibilities. Most see Coentrao getting the call, which may have as much to do with opening on the road as Bayern’s right winger.
If Robben’s on his game, the selection may not matter. Whoever is Real’s left back will need help from Pepe from the middle, Sami Khedira in midfield. It’s the same type of multi-player approach any coach would use to neutralize any of the world’s best, an approach that carries an obvious limitation: If Robben is on, the plan may not matter. He’ll find a way to score goals.
The question is whether it will be enough. Two years ago, Robben was able to lead Bayern past Manchester United, but Real Madrid is worlds better than that United team. Not only will Munich need heroics from Robben, but they’ll need to stifle an attack that’s averaging over three goals per match in Spain.
Impossible? No, but you can see why most are picking Real to go through.