Managerial history, subplot adds even more intrigue to Real, Bayern rivalry
No two clubs have met more frequently in the history of the Champions League than Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, who will line up against each other for the 17th time in Europe's elite club competition in Wednesday's quarterfinal first leg in the Allianz Arena.
Other heavyweights might disagree but this fixture deserves its billing as the continental Clasico. In all, the Bundesliga and Liga leaders have faced off 22 times in the European Cup and Champions League and while the overall balance of results is fairly even -- Bayern have won 11 games to Real's nine -- at home the Bavarians have historically dominated the Spanish side, winning nine and losing just once in 11 fixtures, earning the tag of Bestia Negra among Madridistas.
Although Zinedine Zidane's side enjoy home advantage for the second leg a positive result in Munich would be a huge breakthrough ahead of the return leg on April 18th. To say Madrid struggle on German soil is something of an understatement: in 30 games the 11-time European champions have been victorious on just four occasions and have been defeated 19 times.
It is a record that can be firmly filed among the B sides of Real's European greatest hits. Few teams have been more feared in the competition than Real Madrid but none inspire more anxiety in the reigning champions -- who are bidding to become the first side to retain Europe's top club honour since Milan in 1989-90 -- than Bayern Munich.
"The concept of the Black Beast isn't relevant in my case. I've always had good experiences with Bayern. We're very confident and are looking forward to the match. We want to do all we can to get to the final and bring the title back to Madrid."
The coach who made these remarks went on to inflict Bayern Munich's heaviest home defeat in European competition in 2014. He now of course sits on the opposing bench from his protégé' Zidane. Carlo Ancelotti will be scheming to redress the 4-0 drubbing he masterminded over his current club in the 2013-14 semifinals at the Allianz Arena while he was in charge of Real Madrid.
The managerial subtext to the game itself adds extra fascination. Wednesday will be the first time Ancelotti and Zidane, who together delivered the long sought-after Decima to the Bernabeu, have gone head-to-head in a competitive game. Will the pupil outfox the master or will Ancelotti's far greater experience of the big occasion prove decisive? This is without doubt the sternest test so far of the Frenchman's coaching credentials and it comes on the biggest stage.
The Real boss will have to contend without Pepe and Raphael Varane in the centre of defence, leaving Nacho to partner Sergio Ramos. The canterano is a prime candidate for the side's most-improved player this season and has risen to the big occasion in the past, not least against PSG in the 2015-16 group stage.
Otherwise, Zidane is unlikely to stray from his tried and trusted first-choice 11. The BBC will start up front, even if Gareth Bale has been on a fruitless search for his best form after returning from injury and Cristiano Ronaldo has failed to score in his last 613 minutes of Champions League action -- the Portuguese's longest barren spell in Europe since he arrived in Madrid. Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos will patrol the midfield, the German having recovered from the knock that forced him off against Atletico.
Ancelotti also has most of his personnel available but question marks hang over two of his key players. Manuel Neuer rejoined training on Monday after undergoing surgery on a minor foot problem and should be fit to return in goal after sitting out last weekend's 4-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund and the two previous Bundesliga fixtures. Bayern's chief concern is Robert Lewandowski, who pulled out of training last week with a muscle strain and picked up a bloody nose and a bruised shoulder against Dortmund. That being said, Ancelotti's top scorer is expected to be fit to face the side he put four past in an hour while playing for the Black and Yellows in the 2012-13 semifinals. Mats Hummels is out with a sprained ankle but Thomas Muller has been passed fit after missing Bayern's last two games.
Managers often offer the soundbite that they would prefer to face a full-strength opponent. On this occasion, Ancelotti and Zidane would probably say the same without presenting a false front. Dethroning the other against a significantly weakened side would detract from the achievement. Both coaches will want a full board to test their tactics against on Wednesday in a fixture that may be increasingly familiar but promises to be anything other than an attritional stalemate: Real have scored at least twice in every Champions League fixture this season while Bayern have rattled in 58 in their last 16 European games in Munich.
The home side have reached at least the semifinals for five consecutive years; the visitors have done so in six successive seasons. Finding out which club extends that record should prove one of the highlights of this year's competition.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.