Before the big game in Lisbon on May 24, Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich will face an earlier "final" at their very own stadium.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side will travel to Munich with a 1-0 lead following their win in the first leg last week and will look to reach their first final in over a decade.
Madrid are also coming off an impressive 4-0 win against Osasuna this weekend in La Liga, which means that without an away goal all the pressure will be on Bayern as they look to reach their fourth final in five years.
Guardiola has received a lot of criticism over the month due to Bayern’s form and string of poor results, and that criticism reached a boiling point after their loss against Madrid last week.
Bayern were the dominant side in Madrid yet left the Bernabeu without anything to show for it. They had more of the ball, created more scoring chances and played well overall all things considered.
Yet, there was an air of disappointment hovering over the team, a sense that the team had underachieved. Questions were raised about whether Guardiola’s strict adherence to his style of play actually benefited or hurt the team this time around.
For all of Bayern’s dominance this season, their year will seemingly be defined by how they fare against Madrid in the semifinals. The first leg was interpreted as a referendum on Guardiola’s style, and the second will no doubt be one on the team’s season.
Simply put: Bayern have to progress in a competition where they are still deemed favorites. And to do that, they will have to improve on what was already a good, albeit largely ineffective, performance.
So what can Bayern do to turn this tie around? More importantly, what little details must Guardiola alter to make sure his style is more effective this time around?
On paper, the lineup Guardiola sent out in Madrid was the strongest he could have fielded. Philipp Lahm started in midfield where he has been at his best this season, and Mario Mandzukic got the nod up front after his game-changing performance in the previous round against Manchester United.
In hindsight, however, both those choices may have actually impeded Bayern against the defensively organized and deadly counter-attacking Madrid.
Starved of service due to Madrid cluttering the area in and around the box, Mandzukic was not very involved in the game, and Bayern’s crosses often failed to hit the spot.
Meanwhile, Madrid’s goal came down Bayern’s right side, arguably their weak spot with Lahm being played in midfield. Bayern struggled with Madrid’s pace on the counter, and the more tactically disciplined Lahm may have made the difference there.
It also stands to reason that with Madrid defending in large numbers, players like Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze could have been more useful to combine in tight spaces and play outside the box.
Bayern’s best chance did come through Gotze toward the end of the game, and Pep may want to consider starting him or Muller up front instead of Mandzukic on Tuesday.
The exact opposite was the case in the quarterfinal against Manchester United. Guardiola started Muller up front in the first leg and found that he was outmuscled by the more physical United defenders and isolated up front.
Mandzukic started the second leg, but a deeper Muller with license to roam exploited United’s defense in their 3-1 win. In that sense, both Muller and Gotze provide Guardiola with more mobile options than Mandzukic.
But it should be remembered that the United performance in the second leg came with Mandzukic remaining on the pitch, in which case Guardiola may want to keep the Croatian striker in the line-up and drop one of his central midfielders.
One of the questions following the Madrid game was whether it was necessary to have both Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger start. Madrid’s defensive disposition and conscious bunkering necessitated a player who can break through the cluster of defenders, not pass the ball outside it.
It remains to be seen whether Guardiola starts Lahm at right-back or sticks with him in midfield. It is that decision that then affects how the rest of the line-up shapes up.
Should Guardiola start Lahm in defense he can either go a similar route as the first leg and start Javi Martinez, Kroos and Schweinsteiger in the middle or drop one of the three and start the more attack-minded Gotze or Muller.
Pep probably would have preferred to have Thiago available for both legs, but the central midfielder is still out after suffering a partial ligament rupture a couple of weeks back and could miss the remainder of the season.
In his place, Bayern will need a penetrative midfielder who can both help the team keep and circulate the ball but also break Madrid’s disciplined back line with through balls and take them on one-on-one.
Penetrative play through the middle was very much lacking in the first leg, and if Bayern want to make their dominance count on Tuesday, they need to improve in that area.
Guardiola has no shortage of options in his star-studded squad, and he was able to rest potential starters in Arjen Robben, Lahm and Mandzukic this weekend.
Robben voiced his optimism heading into the game, saying he has a good gut feeling about the game. Whatever their guts tell them, Bayern have to find their groove again on Tuesday.
Guardiola, on the other hand, will have to make the most important tactical decision of the season ahead of this game. To many, Bayern’s season very much depends on it.
Follow Cristian on Twitter @cnyari.
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