Can Bayern stop Real's march to a Champions League three-peat?
The last team to "three-peat" as champions of Europe, doing so 42 years ago, take on the team that is fancied to complete their own this season. It's an added layer of spice to the clash between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal.
Not that you really need it in situations like this. European football's seascape brings together plankton and minnows, squid and sharks, but these two are bona fide whales. One or the other has been in six of the past eight Champions League finals and they've been in the top four of the Deloitte Money League (which ranks clubs by revenue) in nine of the past 10 years. Most would say these are the two strongest clubs left in the competition and if UEFA used a seeded system, they'd be meeting not now but in Kiev on May 26.
The odd thing, and perhaps it's a reflection of both the imbalance of power in the game and the quirks of knockout competitions, is that Bayern and Real Madrid got this far despite running over some rather substantial potholes early on.
Let's go back to early October, shall we?
Bayern were third in the Bundesliga at the time and had just fired their manager, Carlo Ancelotti, after a heavy defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain. They had veteran stars Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben agitating over expiring contracts, their home-grown hero Thomas Muller had scored seven league goals in the previous 18 months, their star striker Robert Lewandowski was linked with a move to (of all teams) Real Madrid and their goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was injured and possibly out for the season.
As for Real Madrid, they were sitting fifth in La Liga and Cristiano Ronaldo, banned for five games after a red card in the Spanish Super Cup, had played just three league matches. Their record signing, Gareth Bale, was injured (again) and centre-forward Karim Benzema was pilloried for not scoring enough (eight goals in eight months tell their own story).
Some wondered whether the old "BBC" front three was even "a thing" anymore and whether the club should have spent on big names in the summer rather than simply adding a couple youngsters. Others were beginning to question whether manager Zinedine Zidane -- he of the two Champions League titles and a Liga crown in 18 months -- was being exposed as a guy who was handed the keys to the Bernabeu without the requisite experience.
Fast-forward to the present.
Bayern are German champions and 22 points clear at the top with three games to go. They're also through to the German Cup final, where they'll play Eintracht Frankfurt. Ancelotti was replaced by Jupp Heynckes, who is 72 years old and was four years into a well-earned retirement. He needed some convincing -- he quite enjoyed devoting most of his attention to his dog -- but took over as caretaker in what is essentially a turnkey operation.
Ribery and Robben have been offered new deals but if they're agitating for extensions, they're doing it quietly without affecting the side. Muller has 13 goals in his last 22 appearances, scoring a hat-trick in the German Cup semifinal last week, Lewandowski is on pace for the most prolific season in his career and Neuer might even be back for the return leg of the semifinal.
Real Madrid are up to third in La Liga and Ronaldo is doing his thing, with 25 goals in his last 15 matches. Bale is fit, though that matters less given the way the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez has been playing. Benzema still isn't scoring (his last goal from open play was two months ago) but that too is secondary because others are picking up the slack. Indeed, the BBC is increasingly just a "C" with a rotating cast of superstars to support Ronaldo. As for Zidane, he's as secure as any Real Madrid manager can ever be.
In other words, normal service has resumed.
Plus, Bayern and Real Madrid have the intangible quality of seemingly knowing how to win. Sometimes it's dramatic last-ditch goals to stave off elimination, like Muller against Juventus two years ago or Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final in 2014. Other times, it's a bit of good fortune, like the two deflected goals that prompted Bayern's comeback against Sevilla or the injury-time penalty awarded to Real Madrid against Juventus just in the last round.
This is not to say that they're lucky or undeserving. Whether it's the mystique of the jerseys, the history or the reputation, these two clubs more often than not find a way to win. That's why they both make history time and again.
Now either Bayern will stop Real Madrid from a historic three-peat, ensuring the German club's place in the record books remains secure at least until 2021. Or Real Madrid will sail into their third consecutive final and their fourth in five years, with their sights set on equaling and then besting their legendary forebears who won five in a row more than half a century ago.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.