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KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Bayern Munich's next test: Real Madrid in Champions League semis

The UEFA Champions League final will most likely be between Real Madrid and Barcelona, but Bayern Munich is making a Cinderella run and could test Madrid in the semifinals.

April 07, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Bayern Munich midfielder Frank Ribery celebrates a goal against Olympique de Marseille with teammate Ivica Olic on Tuesday in Munich.
Bayern Munich midfielder Frank Ribery celebrates a goal against Olympique… (Kerstin Joensson / Associated…)

OK, by a show of hands, how many of you really want to see Real Madrid play Barcelona — again! — in the UEFA Champions League final?

Yeah, thought so. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. There's little doubt the two Spanish clubs are the best in the world and deserve to play for the title.

Real Madrid, which meets Germany's Bayern Munich in a two-leg Champions League semifinal series beginning April 17, is scoring at a record pace with 100 goals through 30 La Liga matches heading into the weekend, an average of 3.3 goals a game. That's the highest scoring average in any of Europe's top five leagues since World War II.

And Barcelona, which plays Chelsea of the English Premier League in its semifinal series beginning April 18, isn't far behind — especially in the Champions League, where it has scored 33 times in 10 games.

Still, it's possible to get too much of a good thing. And if Real and Barca tangle in Munich next month in the Champions League final, it would be their seventh meeting in less than 10 months. (Barcelona leads the season series, 3-0-2, with April 22's second La Liga game still to go.) It's like watching the Red Sox and Yankees play 19 times a season. The first couple of games are intriguing, but after that, it's like deja vu all over again.

There is another Champions League story line that isn't so familiar, though. Munich has a chance to become the first club to win the UEFA title on its home field since Internazionale in 1965. And only seven times has a team from the host country captured the Champions League, the last coming in 1997 when Borussia Dortmund won in Munich.

A victory in the final would also cap a Cinderella run for Munich, which had to beat Zurich in a two-leg playoff just to qualify for the tournament. Then it wound up winning the so-called Group of Death — losing just once, to Manchester City, in six group-stage matches. Next the Germans dominated Basel, 7-0, in their second-leg match in the round of 16 — the largest single-game margin of victory in the Champions League knockout phase — before shutting out French side Marseille twice in the quarterfinals.

Which may be why Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo steered well clear of saying anything to antagonize his foes before the semifinals.

"They are very tough side," he said. "I do not see myself in the final because Bayern is a side that can win the Champions League."

Despite all that, Munich, the tournament runner-up in 2010, is facing exceedingly long odds against Real Madrid, winner of a record nine Champions League titles. But the cause is far from hopeless.

Beating a potent team like Madrid will require keeping the score down, and Bayern Munich has shown it can do that, posting clean sheets in its last three matches and allowing just one goal since group play. The Germans accomplished that by breaking up scoring chances before they start, averaging a tournament-high 20 interceptions a game.

Munich must also find a way of its own to score against a team that has given up only six goals in 10 matches. And it certainly has the weapons. Striker Mario Gomez is second to Barcelona's incomparable Lionel Messi with 11 Champions League goals, while midfielder Franck Ribery is tied for the tournament lead with five assists. Plus the Germans have other useful players, such as Thomas Muller up front and Arjen Robben in the midfield.

Is Real Madrid unbeatable? Almost. But Munich Coach Jupp Heynckes said his team will show up anyway in the hopes of qualifying for next month's final in its hometown. "The two Spanish clubs maybe — no certainly — are still a little bit superior to us. But in two games, you can oust even Real Madrid," he told the official UEFA website.

As for the other semifinal, Real Madrid Coach Jose Mourinho says the outcome has already been decided.

"Let me be honest. I don't think the final will be a Real Madrid-Chelsea final. And we know why," he said, calling Barcelona a "super favorite."

Mourinho's comments were a sarcastic reference to Barcelona's unusually good fortune in the tournament, luck that included two penalty shots — both converted by Messi — in Barca's 3-1 quarterfinal win over AC Milan.

Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola, whose team has won two of the last three in Champions League titles, refused to take the bait.

"I'm thankful for the confidence he has in us," Guardiola said of Mourinho.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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