Spanish giants bid to recover credibility

Football often takes itself too seriously, but for once the Champions League has produced two semi-finals that deserve the word historic.

For five years Spanish football enjoyed an aura of supremacy that seemed unchallengeable. In reality there was always an element of hyperbole to it, notably the hype surrounding El Classico, but their brand of total football was the one to aim at.

Three hours of blistering German attacking last week disposed of that theory. The question now is if and how the two Spanish sides can at least recover credibility if not their previous standing.

Blitzkrieg is the word that comes to mind about the two German first-leg performances, even if people are understandably reluctant to use it. Fast, relentless, superbly prepared and overwhelming. It was evident beforehand that both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich were well equipped to cause problems for their opponents. The surprise was the confidence and panache with which they achieved it.

Arrigo Sacchi, the Italian coach who pioneered the pressing game so successfully at Milan, was visibly purring as he analysed Bayern’s game — “they’re like an infernal machine that multiplies individual ability with strength, solutions and self-belief” — and if anything he was even more impressed with Dortmund’s boldness and teamwork.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s away goal could of course weigh in balance tonight. As Sacchi says “90 minutes in the Bernabeu can be a very long time.”

Belief will be an important factor, and perhaps also the crowd. Real Madrid seemed curiously disoriented by the wall of sound that surrounded them in Germany.

Evidently the club believe their own support can have a similar but opposite impact.

A video directed at the fans — “Nuestra fuerza eres tu” (Our strength is you) — has been broadcast continuously on Real Madrid TV (and on You Tube) since Saturday, featuring players such as Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso staring straight into camera: “We need you like never before. Your heart will be our heart. With you the impossible doesn’t exist. You never failed us and you never will.”

Conspicuous by its absence is the face of José Mourinho, but then this season the manager has often seemed part of the problem as much as the solution. He spoke frankly after the first leg about how he told the players at half-time that they “could lose by three or four” if they didn’t cut out the errors. It doesn’t sound like the psychological armour Mourinho is famous for forging in his players, and as on other occasions this season Madrid proved to have a soft centre in defence.

Just like Barcelona in Munich they were tested in a way they don’t often encounter in La Liga.

Spanish pundits were quick to point the finger at the manager for playing both Ronaldo and Mesut Özil out wide.

“An old football saying is that you need your best men at the heart of the battle, not on the neighbouring hills,” says Marca columnist Santiago Segurola, and he evidently believes Madrid are once again doomed to fall short in their pursuit of that 10th European crown. “Madrid need a wizard to transform that (first-leg) Real into a team, and Mou is not yet a wizard...”

Dortmund are not impregnable. Back in February they almost inexplicably fell apart against Hamburg and lost 4-1. To put that into perspective Hamburg have been beaten 13 times this season and recently conceded nine goals against Bayern. But Jurgen Klopp has focused his players tremendously on the Champions League this season. He rested ten of them for the weekend’s win in Dusseldorf while Madrid could not quite afford that degree of luxury for the derby against Atletico.

We can expect Madrid to come out tonight with guns blazing as they did last year against Bayern and Howard Webb and his fellow match officials — not popular in Spain after the 2010 World Cup final — will need to be vigilant.

As for tomorrow night’s showdown, Leo Messi’s form is one obvious factor and he scored a stunning goal against Bilbao on Saturday. Bayern will be wary despite their 4-0 lead. They will also be concerned about yellow cards. Six players are one away from a ban, including Lahm, Martinez and Schweinsteiger, and Slovenian referee Damir Skomina is not known for his leniency.

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