Following Friday's draw in Nyon, the table is set for a riveting Champions League semifinal clash between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
The two-legged tie will see familiar faces meet as ex-Barcelona trainer Pep Guardiola, now of Bayern, takes on old rivals Real. And for Real, a run-in with the club to which they often refer as La Bestia Negra ("the Black Beast") will be both nervy and motivating. The clubs have met 22 times in the past, with Bayern winning 11 games, Real nine and the sides drawing twice.
The most recent tie between Bayern and Real took place two seasons ago, also at the semifinal stage. Bayern won the first leg at home by a 2-1 margin, but Real were able to equal that score at the Bernabeu. After extra time, the heroic Manuel Neuer saved penalties from Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka as the Bavarians won the resulting shootout and advanced to the final.
The Real team that Bayern will face is very much a changed side since then, with new trainer Carlo Ancelotti having shaken up the squad and its tactics. Real still play a containment, counterattacking style of football, but Jose Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 formation has been replaced with Ancelotti's 4-3-3 and a number of individual changes have been made.
Real's back five are much the same as they were two years ago. Although Iker Casillas has not started a single La Liga game this season, he has been the goalkeeper in every Copa del Rey and Champions League fixture. Marcelo, Pepe and Sergio Ramos are still first-choice, the only change in defense being the replacement of Alvaro Arbeloa with Dani Carvajal at right-back.
Midfield is a different story. Xabi Alonso still anchors the Real midfield, but Ancelotti has opted to use two neutrally central players ahead of him rather than an out-and-out playmaker and a second defensive midfielder as Mourinho did with the now-departed Mesut Ozil and currently injured Sami Khedira, respectively.
Ancelotti has used several players ahead of Alonso in midfield, including Luka Modric, Asier Illarramendi, Angel di Maria and Isco, depending on the opponents and his preferred tactical approach. Modric has been the most consistent selection of the quartet of options and one of Illarramendi or Di Maria is most likely to start against Bayern depending on whether Ancelotti prefers natural central midfield qualities or energy and aggression.
Up front, Cristiano Ronaldo remains the undisputed starter on the left wing and Karim Benzema (particularly following the sale of Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli) is Real's man in the center. The right wing now belongs to Gareth Bale, however, as Di Maria has been moved back to a part-time role in a deeper and more central position than his former attacking position.
Personnel aside, not a great amount has changed at Real since 2011-12. The club still has 2002 as the last year they reached the Champions League final, and La Decima (a record 10th European Cup victory) remains the ever-elusive goal the club so desperately seeks.
As has consistently been the case in recent years, Real under Ancelotti typically walk all over lesser opponents but struggle against the best and especially when it matters most. They appeared to be well on their way to winning La Liga, but after dropping eight points in a recent five-game spell, they are now third and in serious danger of going a second consecutive season without silverware.
Mentality still remains the biggest weakness for Real and many of their stars. It took a late goal to salvage just one point from four matches against Liga rivals Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, and the Spanish giants nearly capitulated against a Dortmund B-team earlier this week.
Aside from the mental factor, Dortmund especially exposed Real's greatest weakness: center-backs Pepe and Sergio Ramos. Their pressing forced errors, particularly from the former, who in spite of all his athleticism offers little confidence on the ball. Bayern are very familiar with the pair, which Mario Gomez (despite converting just one of his many chances) put to the sword two years ago.
Alonso's age and a general lack of real steel in midfield means that Real can be overrun by an athletic, aggressive and pressing team. This susceptibility is only amplified by the general unwillingness of superstars Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema to track back and defend. Defending at all depths of the pitch is another of Real's weaknesses, and this is where their strongest opponents have managed to beat them.
On the other hand, Real have a world-class attack with a wealth of individuals who have the quality to single-handedly turn games. Their wingers cost nearly €200 million combined and being able to call upon Isco and/or Di Maria as substitutes is a luxury that few clubs can even come close to matching.
Especially after the quarterfinal struggles with United and considering Real's weaknesses, Pep Guardiola would be wise to mould his team to play more like that of his predecessor, Jupp Heynckes: With high pressing to force errors in deep areas and defending in a more classic style to avoid being hit on the counterattack by Real's lightning-fast front three.
As witnessed on Tuesday, Real are an entirely beatable team, capable of being handily bettered by superior tactics, if inferior players. Bayern have a squad that can match Real's, the question is whether Guardiola chooses the right tactics and gets the best out of his team. Only that can ensure Bayern's best chance of advancing.
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