Bayern and Benfica intriguingly poised in Champions League battle
It all looked plain sailing when Arturo Vidal nodded Bayern Munich ahead against Benfica, after only 108 seconds in their quarterfinal first leg in Munich last week.
But the German champions failed to ram home their perfect start, leaving Wednesday's return in the Portuguese capital tantalisingly poised.
As ever, Thomas Muller is full of innovative ideas and has come up with a cunning plan on how to tackle the spirited Portuguese champions in their own backyard. Echoing his mentor (and former Bayern coach) Louis van Gaal's comments from earlier this season, Bayern's record Champions League goal scorer suggested almost with a straight face: "We need to be hornier and show more enthusiasm."
One man who's certainly full of those particular joys of spring at the moment is the first-leg match winner Vidal. While Bayern would probably still easily win the Bundesliga without Vidal's services, he's become the go-to man in the Champions League with a string of quality performances, most notably against his former employer Juventus in the previous round.
The Chilean will be fresh too for the Lisbon test as Pep Guardiola wisely decided to remove him from the fray after only 25 minutes on Saturday. Cautioned for one too many fouls early on, the combative midfielder was already seriously walking the red card tightrope against VfB Stuttgart.
Spanish-speaking colleague Xabi Alonso hinted as much by repeatedly tapping his own forehead as if to say to "Vidal, engage your brain." Suffice to say ahead of a must sterner examination in Europe, Vidal was given a breather and rightly hooked for his own protection.
With Vidal making way for Muller, Bayern's fortunes actually improved as they took another huge step towards the title. A 3-1 win in the southern derby, coupled with Borussia Dortmund's 2-2 derby draw with Schalke, means the reigning champions extended their lead at the top to seven points. With five games remaining, a historic fourth Bundesliga crown in succession (and a Pep hat trick) again looks a mere formality.
Why's it historic, you ask? Well, though they've utterly dominated German football with 24 Bundesliga titles since 1963, even Bayern have never managed the feat of winning four in a row.
Guardiola has always reached the Champions League last four at the very minimum as a coach in six attempts with Barcelona and Bayern so the Catalan is preparing to enter familiar territory. Bayern are not great travellers under his tutelage, however, losing four of their previous eight away games in the competition, including a 3-1 defeat in Porto at the quarterfinal stage last season.
The two away wins this campaign were racked up against Zagreb and Olympiakos --hardly the competition's elite and probably the sort of side Bayern wouldn't have to bother playing if board chairman's Karl Heinz Rummenigge's seeding idea ever came to fruition.
Despite winning their previous six games, Bayern have been far from at their best in recent weeks, yet remain firmly on course for a treble. Meanwhile, Juan Bernat, Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski and Vidal are all a booking away from an untimely European suspension. Certainly, the rumbustious Vidal in particular, will have to watch his step in Lisbon if he is to avoid missing out on any potential semifinal first leg.
A crucial away goal would greatly assist Bayern's cause against the gallant back-to-back Portuguese champions. If the likes of Lewandowksi and Muller find the net, Benfica, deprived of the goal scoring talents of suspended marksman Jonas, would then need three to progress. This appears a most unlikely proposition, even against Bayern's experimental central defence of recent weeks.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.