Real Madrid know-how shows Bayern Munich have lost their edge
MUNICH -- In an interview earlier this week, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp admitted that he has never brought himself to watch again the 2013 Champions League final. An all-German affair, played before a rapturous Wembley crowd, ended with Arjen Robben's winner dampening the exuberance of Klopp's Borussia Dortmund, who could hardly have done more in attempting to upset the odds.
Bayern, though, that distillation of cockiness and knowhow, found a way to win yet again that night and outgoing manager Jupp Heynckes was able to hand the incoming Pep Guardiola a Treble-winning team that sat proudly on top of the world.
If that game still makes agonising viewing for Klopp, then perhaps what has gone since is an awkward watch for Bayern. While they remain dominant in the Bundesliga, similar moments in Europe have been elusive in the half-decade since that glory night in London.
Whereas Dortmund sparkled but fell short at Wembley, it is now Bayern -- still laden with quality -- who find the fine margins going against them. Next Tuesday, they will walk out at the Bernabeu in hope rather than expectation and kick off their Champions League semifinal second leg trailing Real Madrid 2-1.
But it should never have been that way: Decisive errors at either end of the pitch aside, Bayern were better than Madrid during the tie's first meeting at the Allianz Arena. The problem, though, is that that is becoming a familiar lament when they reach the competition's latter stages and, this season at least, it will take something special to break the cycle.
"We weren't clinical enough," admitted Heynckes, now back in the Bayern dugout, on Tuesday. "I haven't seen something like that [from us]; it doesn't happen very often."
But while that may be true domestically, where Bayern rattle out almost three goals a game on average and nobody minds too much when opportunities to add garnish go begging, it is a repeat occurrence in Europe and especially against Real.
Bayern should have put the eventual winners to the sword in last season's quarterfinals but, instead, contrived exactly the inconvenience they face now and lost the first leg at home, 2-1, having opened the scoring. Three years earlier, Madrid overwhelmed Guardiola's side 5-0 in the semifinals.
Only five of the players who were involved in a chastening second leg, which saw Bayern concede four times at home, were in action on Wednesday but it is pertinent to wonder whether something snapped that night in 2014. Bayern are not quite the force of old and there is a sense that past disappointments are weighing them down.
It is the opposite for Real Madrid, whose winning instinct is so fine-tuned that they can turn in what was -- despite Zinedine Zidane's post-game insistence that, "overall, we controlled the game very well" - an average performance and still emerge, not only as winners but as resounding tournament favourites. Their sense of certainty was the one with which Bayern walked out at Wembley five years ago.
Perhaps Zidane was watching a match in which Robert Lewandowski did not fluff free headers and shoot wide when put through on goal, or one in which Franck Ribery never had the chance to lose his footing with the goal gaping, or one that did not allow Thomas Muller an air shot from a matter of feet away.
But maybe that sense of assuredness simply comes from being Real Madrid: There are few modern-day demons to haunt them, no unwanted ghosts to surface during moments of tension and minimal neuroses to tilt the balance. Real play a European tie and Real eventually win; why, in an era of dominance that has seen them win three of the last four European Cups, should it be any other way?
"The match showed Real can be harmed in defence and, if you look at their home match against Juventus, it was the same," Heynckes said. "We can take hope out of it."
It is that speculative word again: "Hope." They had plenty of it last year when they went 2-1 up in the second leg and forced extra-time, only for Arturo Vidal's red card to spark a Cristiano Ronaldo-led onslaught by Madrid.
Bayern is a club where second-best cuts no ice but has become force of habit; at this rarefied level, they have become a team for whom the hard luck stories can be reeled off. Consider the semifinal against Atletico Madrid two years ago, when Muller's missed penalty at 1-0 allowed Diego Simeone's side a way back into the game and, ultimately, to the final.
Beyond Heynckes' laments about his team's profligacy there was the observation that Bayern created chances "in a very nice way, I have to say." Nobody would dispute that; Ribery showed throughout that he is no faded force at 35 and Thiago Alcantara was a formidable creative force in the first half after replacing the injured Robben.
James Rodriguez, meanwhile, was full of purpose and intent and showed some fine touches. One set up a goal for Joshua Kimmich, who was so effective going forward, though questionable when asked to defend.
The German champions were fluid, easy on the eye; Real, by contrast, bordered on the stodgy. But therein lies the catch: Nice teams rarely win Champions Leagues. Perhaps a Bayern group viewing of that magical London afternoon of five years ago might serve to underline the point.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.