Bayern Munich's definitive test again comes vs. familiar foes Real Madrid
In M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable," a man suffering from extremely brittle bones, Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), commits a series of violent acts to identify his exact opposite, the eponymous superhero of the film. Price believes that Bruce Willis' character David Dunn's unique powers of invincibility bestow a sense of purpose and identity on himself, too. "Now that we know who you are, I know who I am," Jackson tells Willis in the final monologue, shortly before being committed to an institution for the criminally insane.
FC Bayern, it must be stated in the strongest possible terms, are nowhere near as villainous and evil, and they're certainly not made of glass, either. But just like Price, they too have spent the last few years looking for external clues as to who they are, often by comparing themselves to their biggest and only genuine footballing foe: Real Madrid.
Die Koniglichen, the Royals, as the men from Spain's capital are deferentially referred to in Germany, have filled the void left by a succession of domestic teams who might have riled and challenged the Bavarians at some time over the past three decades before fading into the background again. Since TSV 1860 Munich's relegation and subsequent self-destruction -- Die Lowen (The Lions) are currently in the fourth division -- Bayern have found themselves in the unique position of having no local, regional or national rivals who elicit strong emotions of antipathy among the supporters. But a football club needs an adversary just as much as a superhero needs a supervillain. Step forward Madrid, who are their Castilian equivalent in many ways, but are nevertheless considered the "others" and the baddies that the Allianz Arena faithful love to hate -- and beat -- most.
Legend has it that hostilities started when Bayern humiliated Madrid 9-1 in a home friendly in 1980. In the return arrangement at the Bernabeu a year later, Madrid were "out for a brutal revenge", as Klaus Augenthaler recalled in a 2012 interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung. "We were close to leaving the pitch [in protest]," the former Bayern sweeper said. Ill feeling was still running high 31 years ago, when the German record champions knocked out their Spanish counterparts 4-2 on aggregate in a mean-spirited European Cup semi-final that had seen three red cards. Augenthaler, who'd been sent off for slapping Madrid striker Hugo Sanchez on the back of the head, would miss the final, a 2-1 defeat by Porto. A year later, Madrid overcame Bayern 4-3 on aggregate in the quarterfinals to prolong the Bavarians' barren spell in Europe in the 1980s.
Since the revamp of the competition, the frequency of meetings has increased. Bayern vs. Real has become the most-played tie in the Champions League; with almost every single one of the 18 matches rich in drama and historical importance. And more often than not, the outcome was used as a benchmark in southern Germany: it told Bayern where they stood in the wider scheme of things.
In the second group phase of 1999-2000, two sensational wins (4-1 at home, 4-2 away) by the Ottmar Hitzfeld-coached team proved that the previous year's traumatic final appearance, the infamous 2-1 defeat by Man United in Barcelona, was not a flash in the pan. Madrid knocked them out in the semi-final two months later, to make them wait another year for their fourth European Cup win, but the earlier pair of high-scoring triumphs -- "Have you ever seen anything like that?", the incredulous club president Franz Beckenbauer had wondered -- had underlined their international pedigree beyond any reasonable doubt.
A subsequent clash in the 2000-01 semifinal brought about a curious role reversal. Bayern, a byword for untold riches and star-studded arrogance in their own country, suddenly cast themselves as a hard-working, honest footballing collective, out to punish Florentino Perez's Galacticos for their hubris. "They are turning into a circus," Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness said. His side narrowly squeezed past Luis Figo & Co. en route to lifting the trophy in 2001, but Madrid's artists had the upper hand in the next two ties with fairly routine wins. Bayern's elimination in the quarterfinals (2002, 3-2 on aggregate) and last-16 round (2004, 2-1 on aggregate) at the hands of Los Blancos spoke of the Germans' demise as a European power.
In his second spell in charge, Hitzfeld celebrated a stirring 4-4 underdog win on away goals in the last 16 in 2007, but it later became apparent that the result had been misleading. Neither Bayern nor Madrid -- who were beaten six times in the first knockout round between 2007 and 2010 -- were anywhere near the best clubs from Italy and England at the time. A series of poor results in Europe's top competition eventually convinced Bayern to spend more money on star players and to hire a coach, Louis van Gaal, who laid the foundations for sustained progress by turning Bayern into a possession side.
By 2012, the dynamic between the two heavyweights had changed. Bayern, with their own array of mini-Galacticos in tow, no longer pretended to engage in class warfare. In a meeting of equals in the semifinal, they won on penalties to progress to the final on home soil at the Allianz Arena. A traumatic defeat occurred once more (this time by Chelsea), but just as in 2000, Bayern had convinced themselves that they belonged at the very top. The following year, there was no stopping them.
In the 2014 semifinal (5-0 to Madrid on aggregate), Carlo Ancelotti's team brutally exposed the flaws of a near-perfect footballing machine that Pep Guardiola had built in Munich to plant a seed of doubt that kept on growing. Last season in the quarterfinals, red cards for Javi Martinez and Arturo Vidal and a couple of offside goals by Cristiano Ronaldo made it possible for Bayern to believe that they had been unlucky -- and to overlook the tactical ill-discipline that was the hallmark of Ancelotti's short reign.
Jupp Heynckes' return brought improved performances, along with a much better atmosphere. Bayern's sixth consecutive title win in the Bundesliga has come so easily that only success in Europe can deliver validation and satisfaction for the Bavarian ego, but the relatively meek resistance offered by Besiktas and Sevilla in the previous rounds has left them none the wiser as to their true strength.
"Do you know what the scariest thing is?" Elijah Price asks in the film. "To not know your place in this world, to not know why you're here." Fortunately for Germany's "Unbreakables," holders Real Madrid are on hand to provide a higher purpose to their season and to show them exactly who they are in the European context once more. Glass or steel, we'll soon find out.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein