Bayern Munich are by no means out of their Champions League quarter-final clash with Real Madrid, but to prosper at the Bernabeu they will need big performances from two players in particular.
Ironically, those two players are one of their opponent’s own, and another from their opponent’s biggest enemy: Thiago Alcantara and Xabi Alonso.
Bayern’s elimination would make Tuesday’s game the very last Champions League outing of Alonso’s glittering career, which he has already announced will finish this summer as he heads into retirement. In one way, there could be no better place for the classy Spanish midfielder to wave goodbye to Europe’s elite competition than the Bernabeu, a venue he will always regard as a second home after his outstanding spell as a Real Madrid player between 2009 and 2014.
But he will, of course, be desperate to make sure that is not the case, and the success of his midfield partnership with Thiago will be crucial in determining whether Bayern can keep Alonso’s Champions League career alive.
Tuesday’s game is also special for Thiago, who in different circumstances would have been preparing for a different trip to the Bernabeu – as a Barcelona player for Sunday’s potentially La Liga title-deciding Clasico.
Thiago is Barca through and through, having joined the club as a teenager along with his brother Rafinha and becoming a regular member of the senior squad during the latter stages of Pep Guardiola’s reign and Tito Vilanova’s solitary year in charge.
Although Thiago was always highly regarded at Camp Nou, he had a big problem: Xavi, whose ongoing importance as the heartbeat of the team prevented Thiago from becoming an automatic starter and effectively forced him to seek more playing time elsewhere, rather than hang around waiting for the old master to move aside.
Many Barca fans deeply regret the fact that Thiago opted to join Bayern in the summer of 2013, reflecting that he would have been the perfect man to inherit Xavi’s mantle as the midfield conductor.
But the Catalan club’s loss is Bayern’s gain and now – alongside Alonso – Thiago has the task of replicating something that Xavi managed to achieve on many occasions: dominating the midfield against Real Madrid.
Going up against them is a Madrid player who – continuing the theme of appetising sub-plots which surround this tie – started his career with Bayern before, in an opposite move to Thiago, swapped Germany for Spain by moving to the Bernabeu.
Toni Kroos has cemented his reputation as one of the game’s finest ball-playing midfielders since being signed as Alonso’s long-term replacement in 2014, and his smooth as silk partnership with Luka Modric was a major factor in allowing Los Blancos to exert such a stranglehold on the first leg at the Allianz Arena last week.
Semi-finalists: Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Juventus, Monaco. Can't see any of this week's losers turning it around.— Andy West (@andywest01) April 12, 2017
Kroos and Modric are a wonderfully gifted pair but neither of them are particularly strong defensively, and Madrid’s midfield has looked much more convincing since Zinedine Zidane made the most important tactical decision of his tenure by installing Casemiro as a fundamental feature of his starting eleven.
The Brazilian enforcer provides the defensive foundations which allow his more gifted teammates to thread the play further upfield, and now Casemiro’s big challenge is containing the endless energy provided by the third member of Bayern’s midfield; Arturo Vidal.
Having scored the opening goal, missed an excellent headed chance to double the lead and then skying a penalty way over the crossbar, Vidal was undoubtedly the key protagonist of the opening period in Munich. Casemiro’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen again and there’s every chance that the two South Americans will cancel each other out, with Casemiro’s physicality and positional discipline in front of his back four nullifying the threat posed by Vidal’s dynamic athleticism.
If that happens, the battle for control of the midfield will move elsewhere, and could well be decisive to the outcome. Kroos and Modric against Alonso and Thiago won’t be the only important battle at the Bernabeu, but it certainly could be the biggest.