Bayern Munich face their biggest moment as the image and aura of Real Madrid awaits

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

It’s now just a single game, as Thomas Tuchel said after the first leg, but one that involves a lot of double-think. On the Real Madrid training ground, Carlo Ancelotti knows that sitting deep and countering has become the club’s best way in Europe, especially against sides usually as expansive as Bayern Munich. At the same time, the 2-2 first leg at the Allianz Arena means his team do actually need to go and win the game, and this is the Bernabeu. The stage expects. It is, strangely, not quite as simple as coming out and playing Manchester City.

Bayern have a similar dynamic in a different way. Tuchel and Harry Kane, in particular, have to perform like this is the biggest game of their season but can’t allow themselves to think like that. The latter, after all, tends to detract from the former. It can bring a frantic anxiety, when Bayern need ultra focus. That’s what playing at the Bernabeu in the Champions League takes. That’s what being a game from the final requires.

It is indeed “the winner takes it all”, as Tuchel said after the first leg with no ABBA reference apparently intended. Bayern just have much more to lose.

For Madrid, after all, everything looks bright. Even if they don’t win the Champions League this season they look in good shape to win it at any point over the next decade. Ancelotti may well be coming to the end of his time there, but he has overseen the transition to a vibrant young team. It is well set for Xabi Alonso, if he does indeed go to the Bernabeu next year in the way even those at Bayer Leverkusen expect.

Harry Kane and Bayern Munich are preparing for the biggest game of their season. (AFP via Getty Images)
Harry Kane and Bayern Munich are preparing for the biggest game of their season. (AFP via Getty Images)

That’s a prospect that touches on why this is so huge for many at Bayern, particularly their own manager. There are bigger issues at play here than Tuchel’s own flaws. Mostly, Bayern have just got to that stage that is almost inevitable for any institution that enjoys a prolonged period of almost unchallenged success. They are no longer shaped by proper competition. Issues are allowed to build up because there are no correctives. The general feeling at Bayern now is that “the Joshua Kimmich generation” doesn’t have the qualities or resolve of previous generations. They want a clear-out while acknowledging the need to re-interpret the club’s football ideology.

Ralf Rangnick was supposed to oversee this and was expected to take the job right until last week’s first leg. His decision to continue with the Austrian national team has instead added to what has been a strangely farcical recruitment process. Bayern, of all clubs, can’t appoint a manager. It points to issues Manchester United may have… which of course brings us to Tuchel.

There is at least some interest there. If United do decide to dismiss Erik ten Hag, but can’t yet bring in an ideal long-term manager, Tuchel may represent a good compromise.

That argument looks a lot stronger if he wins his second Champions League and Bayern Munich’s seventh, rather than just overseeing the demise of a dynasty. He doesn’t want to leave this job having just been the manager who ended their 11 successive Bundesligas. For all that a European Cup semi-final can be a prelude to immortality and is almost as big as you can get on its own terms, it’s also about the next step with Tuchel.

Thomas Tuchel’s next steps are also at stake as Bayern Munich consider the options with regards to their manager. (AP)
Thomas Tuchel’s next steps are also at stake as Bayern Munich consider the options with regards to their manager. (AP)

With Kane, it’s maybe even bigger. This obviously isn’t going to be his last chance to win a major trophy but it is the one that maybe means the most given that he had this tragic misfortune of finally moving to a club like Bayern in the very season they stop winning the league. He is playing for his own legacy. You don’t even need to go to the infantile level of all the memes and jokes about his record.

Kane is all too aware of what this means. That’s why he ultimately made the decision to leave Tottenham Hotspur. It’s also just as well that he isn’t someone who performs as if he is concerned with legacy. He isn’t like Cristiano Ronaldo in that regard, even though he idolises the Portuguese. Kane is a real team player, which is all the more impressive given he is a single-minded goalscorer.

That’s the way he’s trying to think now. In the build-up to this game, as with Tuchel, it isn’t about what the match means. It’s about going through the processes, if perhaps doing so with more intensity than general Bundesliga games. That’s because Bayern aren’t just playing Real Madrid, a very good team on their own terms. Bayern are playing the image and aura of Real Madrid, which can do even more damage to an opposition side than Vinicius Junior and Jude Bellingham.

The first leg fully displayed that. It went beyond vintage Real Madrid to maybe peak Real Madrid. They had been torn apart by Bayern and battered back, only to somehow score the most predictable goal possible. Vinicius hit Tuchel’s side with a lightning counter-attack.

Bayern Munich must also contend with the aura that comes with facing Real Madrid at the Bernabeau (AFP via Getty Images)
Bayern Munich must also contend with the aura that comes with facing Real Madrid at the Bernabeau (AFP via Getty Images)

It had such a feeling of inevitability about it, in what has been a dismal season for Bayern, that you could have forgiven the German side for feeling the tie was over at that very moment. The aura was too strong.

But they didn’t feel like that. They did the opposite. They turned it around. Bayern even went ahead and should have won. While that could maybe make it more frustrating and “typical Madrid” that the Spanish champions somehow claimed a draw, it could have been worse. That’s what makes this entire tie feel like it could be different. It didn’t go Madrid’s way in the manner everyone expected.

Ancelotti has to approach this in a slightly different way, too. He can’t just adapt around the opposition, in the way he has so often done against Manchester City. Bayern aren’t as preset to play openly. Mikel Arteta saw that at Arsenal. Bayern have been capable of closing up in Europe, but there’s another element. Whatever people think about Tuchel’s overall approach or his man-management, there are few better than him at coming up with a specific approach for a one-off game.

That is what this is now. The lack of the away goal means it is a rare second leg with no score firing it. It is, of course, still surrounded by all the mystique and historic memories of so many great Real Madrid occasions. Bayern didn’t let that get to them in the first leg, though, even though they pretty much suffered the worst-case scenario.

They are still aiming and hoping for the best-case scenario from this season. That is to be European champions. They, like Ancelotti, just can’t let themselves think like that.

There’s one single big game to play, although with so much on it.