5 Key Clashes to Look out for in the 1st Leg of Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich
Real Madrid and Bayern Munich renew rivalries in the upcoming Champions League semi-finals, with the first leg taking place April 23 at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid.
Both teams are blessed with world-class players all over the pitch, and the individual battles between specific players could go a long way toward giving one of these teams the advantage heading to the return leg at the Allianz Arena next week.
Here's a look at five of the key clashes that will determine the flow and result of this titanic clash.
Xabi Alonso vs. Bastian Schweinsteiger
Alonso and Schweinsteiger are the chief midfield organizers of their respective teams, but they will also be tasked with negating each other's influence.
Alonso's ball distribution is crucial to Real Madrid's play, and the energetic Schweinsteiger will look to breathe down Alonso's neck and attempt to disrupt his rhythm. Alonso isn't quite mobile enough to chase Schweinsteiger all around the midfield; instead, the Basque veteran will look to use all his experience and positional sense to cut out Schweinsteiger's passes.
These two central midfield stalwarts might not boast the most recognizable names or faces on their respective teams, but their battle looks set to be the central clash of the game—in more ways than one.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Philipp Lahm
Ronaldo's blistering form this season was cut short by a hamstring injury that has seen him miss Real Madrid's last four games. However, the club's official website said CR7 completed a full training session on Monday, meaning the Portuguese star looks good to return to action against Bayern Munich.
On his day, Ronaldo is simply unplayable and unstoppable. But if there's one player in world football with the talents to stop him, it's Lahm. Bayern's coach Pep Guardiola—who coached the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Barcelona—described Lahm as the most intelligent player he ever coached, in comments made to UEFA.com. So intelligent in fact, that he has often deployed Lahm in midfield to make use of his all-round talents.
Up against the threat of Ronaldo however, Lahm is likely to take his place at right-back. If Lahm keeps Ronaldo in his pocket, it will mean Real Madrid's most lethal attacking threat is neutralized. If Ronaldo has Lahm on the back-foot, however, Bayern could find themselves under the cosh.
Arjen Robben vs. Fabio Coentrao
While Ronaldo and Lahm go head-to-head, Arjen Robben and Fabio Coentrao will be fighting their own battle on the other end of the field. Robben loves to use his pace and trickery to outwit opposition full-backs, and he enjoys cutting in from his right-wing position to unleash long-distance shots with his wicked left foot.
He won't have it easy up against Fabio Coentrao, however. The Portuguese man is far more defensively sound than Real Madrid's other left-back option Marcelo. If Coentrao holds his composure against Robben, he will hugely help his team's chances of keeping a clean sheet.
Coentrao could even elect to go on the attack himself to force Robben back. It will be interesting to see if Coentrao plays it safe against Robben, or whether he goes with the "attack is the best form of defence" approach.
Pepe vs. Mario Mandzukic
Last season's Champions League semi-final first leg between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund saw Pepe endure a torrid time against Robert Lewandowski, with the Polish striker plundering four goals as Dortmund ran away with a 4-1 victory.
Fast forward one year and Pepe now finds himself in another Champions League semi-final against another German team and up against another tall, physical Eastern European center-forward.
Mario Mandzukic may not be as technically gifted as Lewandowski, but he is very adept at using his strength and aerial prowess to pester opposition defenders and score goals along the way. If the Croat manages to "do a Lewandowski" over Pepe, Real Madrid's back-line could be in for a long night. Pepe will need to curb his aggressive tendencies and pick his physical battles wisely if he is to keep Mandzukic under control.
Karim Benzema vs. Jerome Boateng
Jerome Boateng looked like the weak link in Bayern Munich's unconvincing quarter-final victory over Manchester United, and Real Madrid will have taken note. In fact, the Spanish giants might just have the perfect striker to unnerve Boateng.
Karim Benzema is a player who excels at using his pace, movement and technique to link up with his partners in the so-called "BBC" triumvirate, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Boateng will need to ensure that Benzema isn't allowed time on the ball, as the Frenchman is just as capable of pulling off a great finish as he is teeing up one of his teammates.
Benzema's 23 goals and 12 assists in official competition this season, as per Goal.com, are testament to his all-round attacking abilities, and Boateng will need to be on his guard.