Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich will be shaped by these 5 important individual battles!
First Leg Score: Bayern Munich 1 – 2 Real Madrid
The two away goals that Real Madrid came away with give Los Blancos an edge in the semifinal, but the three goals Juventus smashed in at the Bernabeu in their tempestuous quarterfinal tie will give the Bavarians solace.
In the end, though, it’ll boil down to how 11 individuals face off against another set of 11, and with that in mind, we’ve picked five key battles that may well decide the outcome tomorrow.
#5 Robert Lewandowski vs Sergio Ramos
In the first leg, Robert Lewandowski – a player who does like the odd goal against Real Madrid – was kept shackled by equal parts Sergio Ramos and his own, unusual, nerves. The Pole’s been firing on all cylinders in the Bundesliga, but that’s a tournament that they’d won before a ball was kicked, and it is in these kinds of matches that he really needs to stand up and be counted.
There are, though, no bigger big-match sportsmen than Sergio Ramos. When the b******isation of Handel rings out across a football stadium, when the guillotine of knockout competition hangs over his neck, when his team needs him to step up… Sergio Ramos invariably does just that.
A lot of what happens tomorrow will depend on how this titanic duel plays out
#4 Franck Ribery vs the entire Madrid right wing
In the first leg, Franck Ribery rolled back the years, pulled on his meanest mean face, and took Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez on a merry trip around Bavaria – the sights, the sounds, the beer… the whole lot. All that was missing from that mesmerising performance was goals, and on a night when Bayern will be in desperate need of at least two of them… he’ll look to provide them.
Carvajal had a nightmare in Munich, but with ‘Nacho’ Fernandez having just got back from injury and Hakimi Achraf too inexperienced at this level, it’s likely that Carvajal will have to deal with his tormentor again, and once again, it’ll be up to Vazquez to provide the cover.
#3 Thiago Alcantara vs Casemiro
The Brazilo-Spanish magician was not named in the starting XI for the first leg but after an early injury to Arjen Robben, he was pressed into duty and duly took over the duty of running the game from the middle of the park. He was at the heart of everything good that Bayern did on the night, pinging passes hither and thither, embarking on the occasional dribble to inject urgency into the game… and Casemiro was almost entirely overwhelmed on the night.
The Brazilian can blow hot and cold, and in the first leg it was very much cold, the timing of his tackles was off, as was his tracking of runs… with Thiago needing a good game to impress Julian Lopetegui enough to earn him a starting place in Russia, Casemiro can bet his bottom dollar that his opponent will be on his A-game. He better be on his, too.
#2 James Rodriguez vs Toni Kroos
The UEFA Champions League has a history of loanees come back to haunt their parent clubs (see Morientes, Fernando) and James Rodriguez will look to become the latest addition to that list. Playing in a deep-lying playmaker role, James played with the kind of defensive discipline and diligence that Zinedine Zidane apparently thought he lacked during his time at Madrid, and he was a real presence offensively and defensively.
Up against him that night, standing toe-to-toe and playing a touch higher up than we’re used to seeing him, was former Bayern darling, Toni Kroos. Sold for a paltry sum of €25 million – and two years of Xabi Alonso – by his first major club, the German has nursed this for quite some time now and generally ends up bringing his A-game to any match against Bayern.
He’ll need to be at it again to stop James pulling the strings from deep; while the Colombian, in turn, will have to do likewise to stop Kroos from running the game.
#1 Cristiano Ronaldo vs Niklas Sule
Niklas Sule is a superb footballer in the making – big, impossibly strong, fast, a great reader of the game and an astute passer of the ball – and he’s just 22. It seems almost unfair.
But that also leads us to the problem. While his physical attributes and footballing talents are unquestionable, his mental strength hasn’t been tested yet, and under the lights at the Bernabeu, Cristiano Ronaldo has a tendency of finding, analyzing, and exploiting any weakness the opposition may have.
With Jerome Boateng injured, Sule is slated to start in the RCB role, putting him in direct opposition against the Champions League’s greatest ever goalscorer… it’s the kind of experience that can make a man.
Ronaldo had a rare off day in Munich, the first game all tournament that he’s not scored in… and he’s never more dangerous than when he’s got a point to prove. Niklas Sule is in for a hell of a night.