Real Madrid's transformation in the Champions League is no magic trick
Real Madrid have us spellbound. So much so that they are starting to believe the stories about their special ability in the Champions League. "This competition is the hardest to win," Toni Kroos says. "Maybe that unleashes special powers in us."
For people watching a mediocre Los Blancos side show up week in and week out for a lost La Liga campaign, their form in that competition and their form in Europe are hard to correlate. They stand in stark juxtaposition, and that helps to compound the myth that Real Madrid in Europe transform into something otherworldly.
You could argue that Jupp Heynckes returned the modern-day Madrid to the formidable side they are now in Europe. During the three decades and more between 1966 and 1998, Los Blancos did not win a single European Cup to add to the six they already had sitting in their trophy cabinet at the Santiago Bernabeu. Since the German helped them to a 1-0 win over Juventus in the European Cup final that year, they have gone on to win another five.
So, while Real Madrid thrive on everyone speaking about how their destiny and that of the Champions League trophy are intertwined, the Bayern Munich manager knows the truth. They have exceptionally talented players who thrive on pressure, but as far as the ingredients for European success go, it's not so much witchcraft and sorcery as it is belief, luck, flashes of brilliance and myriad other factors.
However hard it is to play against Cristiano Ronaldo or anyone else, once you starting bringing these special powers into it, psychology becomes as important as, if not more important than, the football. "The most important thing at the moment is the psychology," Heynckes said before Wednesday's first leg of the Champions League semifinal. And he would know.
Heynckes and former Real Madrid attacker James Rodriguez might be willing to share some insider secrets. But the secret is that there is no secret. It's just Real's unbending belief that they are the best and biggest team in Europe. And if Bayern can somehow bend their own minds to believe the same about themselves, they might be able to do what no team has done in the last 35 months: knock Real Madrid out of Europe.
Bayern have already wrapped up the league title in Germany for the sixth consecutive season. They have a DFB-Pokal Cup final to look forward to also, but they know that lasting legacies are built in the European Cup.
As for Real Madrid, every single one of their eggs is in a Champions League-shaped basket. Futures hang in the balance, careers could be made or broken, contracts are on the line and, as counterintuitive as it sounds, it's that pressure that puts Real Madrid at ease.
Bayern will look to do what neither Paris Saint-Germain nor Juventus could do against Los Blancos in the first legs of their respective ties: keep it close. As far as records at home go this season, Real Madrid are poor. They have earned 2.13 points per game away from home in the league this season and just two at the Bernabeu. That was on display in their last outing in the Champions League, when Juventus beat them 3-1 and lost the tie only because of the first 90 minutes at their own stadium and a fortuitous, if not also deserved, late penalty call.
Real Madrid have almost everyone ready and raring to go and traveled to Munich with a full squad, which Zinedine Zidane tends to do as a sign of team unity. Nacho returns to the fold after a spell on the sideline with a thigh injury but won't be fit enough for selection. Sergio Ramos returns from suspension to bolster Zidane's options at the back.
Gareth Bale has fallen entirely out of favour, and most of the Spanish newspapers don't even consider him an option to start on Wednesday night. Zidane will line up as usual, with one place up for grabs. Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez and Karim Benzema are expected to fight for that last spot beside Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo up front.
The narrative suggests that Real are all set for another march to victory. But they can't get complacent. Bayern Munich are the most savvy team they will have played to date in the competition. Bayern are out for revenge and looking to send their manager, a man who saved their season from the abyss, into the good night with one last Champions League final to savour.
Real Madrid transform when the Champions League's anthem drops, but Bayern seem more balanced and look agile enough to take whatever is thrown at them in this meeting of two heavyweights. That could be crucial because, as we know, Real Madrid in Europe are on another level.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne