A different year, a different manager, and a different group of players, but the same old story for Bayern Munich. Just like in 2017, it came to the Bernabeu in the Champions League semi-finals needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the home leg. Just like in 2017, Bayern outplayed its host but ultimately came up just short.
It was Bayern’s honorary president, Franz Beckenbauer, who confessed before kick-off that “I fear we have a complex with Madrid.” Such a claim might have been laughed off if it had come from the mouth of a fan or journalist. From a man who helped the team to three European Cups as a player, those words carry a little more weight.
This was the 26th time that Bayern had faced Real Madrid in UEFA competition – a record that no other pair of clubs could match. An enduring rivalry between two of the continent’s elite and also, historically speaking, a very balanced one. Before Tuesday, Madrid had won 12 times and Munich 11, with the remaining two ending as draws.
The Spaniards, though, had won the past six. Jupp Heynckes had made light of that truth in his pregame press conference, reminding us of all the ways that things had changed just in the last 12 months. His starting lineup included just five of the 11 players who were on the pitch at kick-off for last year’s semi-final, back when Carlo Ancelotti was still in charge. (Several, admittedly, were absent due to injury.)
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And yet, this game felt all-too familiar. Bayern was better than Madrid, as it had been in the first leg of the tie. At the same time, Bayern was also infuriatingly wasteful.
“Bayern’s DNA is that we always score goals,” Heynckes had insisted before kickoff. They did not disprove him here, finding the net twice, yet it felt telling that neither strike came from the players who the team would typically look to.
Only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more times than Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller in the knockout stages of the Champions League in the past five years. That he has more than both of them put together is indicative of his otherworldly talent, yet these are still two elite players in their own right. So why do neither seem capable of demonstrating their quality against these specific opponents?
Muller has never scored against Madrid, and despite a robust work rate, never came closer to breaking that duck here than a weak shot on the turn just after the half-hour mark, easily smothered by Keylor Navas in the Madrid goal. Lewandowski should have done better with a near-post drive just moments later, and otherwise flattered to deceive despite plenty of service from his teammates.
More is needed from the Polish striker in particular, on nights such as this. Lewandowski racked up more than 40 goals in each of the past two seasons, and only needs one more to break that threshold again this time around. Yet he has failed to score in any of his last five Champions League outings.
The man who fired Borussia Dortmund through to the final of this competition in 2013 was supposed to be the missing link for a team seeking to validate its domestic dominance with success on the continental stage. Instead, ironically, Bayern has not lifted the big-eared trophy since facing off against Lewandowski and his former club at Wembley five years ago.
What will make this latest defeat all the more painful for Bayern is the knowledge of how much else it got right. The Germans dominated Madrid in midfield, taking full advantage of the extra midfielder that Heynckes’ 4-5-1 had granted them against opponents lining up in an all-too-predictable 4-4-2.
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With Thiago Alcantara dictating the tempo from his deep-lying role, Corentin Tolisso and James Rodriguez could take turns to range forward and support the attack. A goal was the least that the former Madrid man deserved for his excellent performances across the two legs.
Similar might be said for Joshua Kimmich, who opened the scoring after just three minutes, having already grabbed Bayern’s only goal in Munich. Here, undeniably, is a player with that Bayern DNA referenced by Heynckes. The 23-year-old has contributed six goals and 14 assists this season, playing at full-back.
His performances over the two legs might provide some crumb of comfort to Bayern, a reminder that despite this disappointment they remain a club rich with talent – even at a position where they might have been expected to feel a void following the retirement of Philipp Lahm. Kimmich, at least, showed no sign of an inferiority complex against Madrid.
Yet it takes a team effort to get through on a night such as this one. In general, it also requires not doing needlessly self-destructive things. Tolisso’s decision to play a blind ball back to his goalkeeper at the start of the second half was reckless, and Sven Ulreich’s subsequent slip, calamitous. Karim Benzema, having already cancelled out Kimmich’s early strike, was only too happy to accept this gift they had given him.
You could call that a manifestation of what Beckenbauer was talking about: an inability to hold nerve and do the simple things right when the pressure is highest. Or you could call it a moment of madness. In either case, the outcome is the same: Bayern exiting the Champions League in the semi-finals, with a grim sense of history repeating.