With the club one step away from its first Champions League final in 12 years, it’s tempting see a Real Madrid team bolstered by Carlo Ancelotti and Gareth Bale as within reach of the club’s coveted decima. Then you remember last year’s failure against Borussia Dortmund, the two semifinal exits before that, and the challenge that will stand across the pitch from the nine-time champions on Wednesday. That’s when Bayern Munich, favorites throughout this year’s competition, will visit the Santiago Bernabéu, with former El Real nemesis Pep Guardiola hoping to guide the German champions to Europe’s first back-to-back titles in 24 years.
“We are in an important semifinal and we are more driven than anyone to win this competition,” Ancelotti said on Tuesday, in the midst of his first semifinal with the Merengues. “[It] is an advantage and a great motivation for us, not an obsession.”
That may depend on how you define obsession. Ever since the club defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final, that 10th European championship has been Real Madrid’s primary focus. That the club has been unable to complete its quest, failing to make a final over that 12-year span, has made the decima into a fixation. It’s the reason why Ancelotti was brought in; why the club wasn’t content with the league and Copa del Rey titles José Mourinho produced during his three-year tenure; why the likes of Bale have bolstered an already immensely talented squad. Whether Ancelotti wants to admit it or not, la decima is an obsession.
“We are only thinking about the match,” Ancelotti reiterated. “I am confident in my team and in my players … we are focusing on our own team. This is the most important thing for coping with the pressure.”
It’s a pressure compounded by a worrisome fitness situation, with Ballon d’Or-winning attacker Cristiano Ronaldo a doubt for the first leg. He’ll face a fitness test before the match. If he passes it, could be available off the bench, with Ancelotti having already ruled him out of the starting lineup.
Recovering from the flu, Bale may also be hampered, while Marcelo’s hamstring will the Brazilian left back give way to Fabio Coentrão. With midfielder Sami Khedira a long-term absence, Real Madrid will be without three or four of its first choice players. All of Bayern’s starters should be at Guardiola’s disposal.
“I hope [Ronaldo] plays,” Guardiola said on Tuesday. “We play for people who want to see the best. He is among the best. If he doesn’t play, [Real Madrid] play in a different way.”
It’s a confidence that’s endemic to Guardiola’s managerial style, but given the quality his Bayern team takes into Wednesday’s match, the attitude is even more well-grounded than usual. Led by the likes of Franck Ríbery, Mario Götze, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern’s lost only four times under its first-year boss. Combined with the Barcelona icon’s history of success against Real Madrid, Bayern are justified in assuming a favorite’s posture.
“My stats at the Bernabéu were with another club at another time and in another situation,” Guardiola explained, having gone 9-4-2 against Real Madrid during his time managing Barça. “It has nothing to do with Bayern. If we win, we will have to put on a very good performance.”
Given Bayern has next week’s second leg at the Allianz Arena, the team doesn’t necessarily need to win.With a team that’s averaging more than 69 percent possession in Champions League, Munchen’s capable bleeding out a draw, should it choose to do so.
Even in the face of the Merengues’ attacking potential, Guardiola’s unlikely to make that choice.
“Cristiano is a goalscorer, Isco gives you more control and possession, [Karim] Benzema gives you stability, [Sergio] Ramos, Xabi [Alonso] and [Luka] Modrić can play the ball from the back,” Guardiola explained, “… and with Bale, Cristiano, [Ángel] di María and Benzema, they can kill with space. We’ll try to attack and defend as we always do.”
Should it perform to its normal standards, Bayern Munich will likely get a result at the Bernabéu – the toughest challenge between it and a second straight title. Any slip, however, and the likes of Bale, Benzema, di María and Modric can heighten the tie’s drama ahead of next week’s finale, allowing Real Madrid’s obsession to feed off the challenge of the Allianz.