“We are here to win.”
It’s a simple enough premise Pep Guardiola puts forth regarding his team’s arrival in Madrid for Wednesday’s first-leg Champions League semifinal match against Real Madrid. You can hardly lead the defending champions of Europe into any match, regardless of opposition strength, and have your team hear you say, “We’re just happy to be here!” or “We think we can keep things close.”
No. You need to arrive with a view to victory, so Pep’s thoughts shouldn’t really be considered much more than typical coach-speak.
Except . . . when was the last time Bayern appeared to be “here to win?”
Since clinching the Bundesliga title in Berlin a month ago, the champions of Germany have looked like a mere shell of the juggernaut that steamrolled to the earliest Bundesliga title in history, the semifinals of the DFB Cup tournament, and the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League.
The first match after clinching the title was a 3:3 draw at home to mid-table side Hoffenheim, a club fairly notorious this season for their goal-scoring ability, but also for a porous defense that concedes scores as quickly as the offense can produce them.
While the result might have seemed a wake-up call for a club with the chance to deliver the first undefeated Bundesliga season in history and maybe could be written off as a result of a post-championship hangover, Bayern went up the road to neighboring FC Augsburg and lost their first domestic match of the season 1:0.
Tucked between those matches was the quarterfinal draw in England with the ghost of Sir Alex Ferguson-era Manchester United that, for a moment, had some wondering whether they hadn’t misjudged David Moyes. But it wasn’t until United actually took the lead in Bavaria (for mere minutes, it turned out), that Bayern started to again look “mighty,” firing three goals into the United goal in less than 20 minutes and reminding everyone how strong this team had been for the vast majority of the past two seasons.
But then Bayern returned home to face Borussia Dortmund and again raised questions of competitiveness, losing 0:3 to their hated new-jack rival.
Even if we go with the premise that Bayern lost a bit of steam in its domestic play once both the championship was clinched and the undefeated run was ended, you would want to credit them with enough disdain for their closest German competition to not lay an egg against them in front of their home fans.
But Dortmund dominated the match.
Now, Bayern will face the side that readily dispatched Dortmund from the Champions League while Bayern struggled with the Red Devils of Manchester.
Real Madrid presents the single-greatest threat to Bayern’s title defense. The talent level at Real is hardly ever in question, and the contrast between the recent run of results of the clubs is stark.
Bayern finally ended their Bundesliga slump last weekend at Eintracht Braunschweig. The match was scoreless for over an hour, before the champions slapped together a pair of goals in the last fifteen minutes to earn an 0:2 against a side that has been at the bottom of the Bundesliga table for 19 consecutive matchdays.
“You can not, on Wednesday morning in Madrid, flip the switch and say, ‘okay, now it counts,’” said Arjen Robben Tuesday about Bayern’s recent form in relation to their Wednesday task, “That won’t work.”
It’s even more troubling knowing you’re facing a team that has been consistently in form, of late, and still fighting to stay in their domestic league title chase.
Real did not play last weekend, due to their appearance in the Copa del Rey final, which they won 1:2 at rival FC Barcelona. Preceding that, Real had three consecutive clean sheets in La Liga play, scoring a total of 13 goals in the three victories. They have not lost at home in 17 matches, and have beaten Bayern in each of their last four meetings.
I suppose it’s fair to point out that Bayern did have an impressive cup semifinal victory, winning 5:1, even if it has to also be said it was against a second-division club that is only just in the picture to be promoted to the top league this season.
Also, Pep Guardiola has never lost a match at the Bernabeu.
Even so, the real question is, “Can Bayern revert to their earlier dominant form in time to handle their white-clad opponents in Madrid?”
“Considering how we have played in recent matches,” said Arjen Robben the day before the semifinal first leg in Madrid, “you can say that we are no longer the favorite. We need again more of the control on the pitch. If you have a weak phase there (in Madrid) or are not present for ten minutes, you can concede three goals.”
“They can, on a good day, pick any opponent apart.”
Both Robben and Pep believe it’s no longer a matter of flipping a switch, though. Pep told the gathered media Tuesday that Bayern has recovered their “mentality” and “spirit” in the wake of their unexpectedly tough battle in Braunschweig.
And he had best hope he’s right. Even should Gareth Bale (flu) miss the match, what remains of the the Real line-up is much more formidable than a Hoffenheim, Augsburg, or Braunschweig. The Dortmund team that just beat Bayern by three goals had lost in Madrid 3:0 just three weeks ago.
All that said, Bayern remains Bayern. Whether it’s flipping a switch, like the Patrice Evra goal did in the last round, or convincing yourself you are now the underdog and, hence, need to dig deep for the right effort, the performance Bayern needs in Madrid will be of the sort the club has not managed in long enough for there to be plenty of doubt.
“Considering how we have played in recent matches,” said Robben the day before the semifinal first leg in Madrid, “you can say that we are no longer the favorite.”
While that may be even more obvious than “we’re here to win,” the true gauge of just who this Bayern club has suddenly become starts Wednesday in Madrid. Well before the final whistle is blown, we should know just how deeply the post-championship lull has settled into the soul of the star of the south.