Depleted defence make Bayern Munich's climb steeper against Madrid
"We're Bayern Munich, we know how to win." The self-confident statement comes from none other than Xabi Alonso, the former Real Madrid player who is playing the last season of his outstanding career after three years with the German club.
If anyone thought Real Madrid's 2-1 victory in Munich last Wednesday had an impact on Bayern's morale, Alonso's words emphatically suggest otherwise. Indeed, Bayern will come to the Santiago Bernabeu to fight for a place in the semifinals of the tournament.
Of course, the Germans face an uphill battle, not only because of the first leg's result. Two of their central defenders -- Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng -- are recovering from injuries, and even if they start, as an upbeat Karl-Heinz Rummenigge suggested on Monday, they won't be totally fit. Javi Martinez, sent off in Munich, will indeed miss the second leg, so Bayern's depleted centre of the defence may offer a few opportunities for Real Madrid's strikers.
Robert Lewandowski is back training and could make the lineup, but he's far from his best shape, which anticipates a picture of struggle in both ends of the pitch for the German outfit.
On Real Madrid's side, a mildly optimistic atmosphere surrounds the team in a week that could prove key to their success or failure in the season. In a move fueled by the players, fans will be wearing white in the next two home matches -- Bayern and Barcelona -- to show their support for the team at this crucial juncture.
After Zinedine Zidane rested seven players in their La Liga match in Gijon, his starting XI looks as fit as possible. In fact, Real Madrid's only unavailable starters are Pepe and Gareth Bale. A season in which Bale started off in impressive, exuberant shape now looks as if it could be his least effective in a white shirt in terms of matches played and goals scored. When in form, Bale is Real Madrid's best offensive weapon, but his lack of durability keeps coming up in any conversation regarding his future potential.
Fortunately, Zidane has plenty of reasonable options to cover for the Welshman. Bale is probably Real Madrid's most direct forward, therefore the player that most resembles him in his directness and speed is Lucas Vazquez. However, judging by the last few matches, the French manager prefers to add more ball control when the Welshman is out, so the leading options are Marco Asensio -- heavily favoured by a minuscule section of the media -- and of course Isco Alarcon.
Isco's extraordinary performance last Saturday in Gijon should give him the nod to start on Tuesday evening. A survey in Marca saw him as the fan favourite with 69 percent of the votes to replace Bale, followed by Asensio with 11 percent and Vazquez with just 8 percent.
The popular sentiment conveys how Isco has reached his best form at the right moment. Here comes a match in which Real Madrid need to manage a sizeable advantage by keeping ball possession and punishing Bayern's predictably risky approach, exactly when there's a gap in Zidane's starting lineup for someone with his characteristics. It's indeed Isco's time.
Pepe's energetic demeanour in high-profile matches will be sorely missed. His replacement, Nacho Fernandez, keeps performing when it matters but could struggle against Lewandowski's physicality. Therefore, and even though Zidane has surprised many in the past with unexpected lineups, in this case anything different than Keylor Navas; Daniel Carvajal, Nacho, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Isco; Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo would be a huge shock.
The tactical battle in midfield, a top class contest between the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Modric, or Xabi Alonso and Toni Kroos, will shape the outcome of the match. At least on paper, the fact that Real Madrid will enjoy the presence of one more midfielder in Isco should put them in a more competitive position than the one they were during the first 45 minutes in Munich.
Zidane's team would err if they approach this match from a conservative standpoint. During 90 minutes of football between teams with such talented squads, the number of alternatives and occasions in which the game can change guarantee that Bayern will have their options. The first leg is an excellent example: the Germans could have reached the halftime whistle with 2-0 up, but Real Madrid could also have levelled before the interval.
According to Alonso, Bayern know well how to win. However, Real Madrid also know a thing or two about that topic, and only one of the two can make it to the semifinals. Resilience and focus will be the main factors for victory in what should be another unforgettable Champions League evening.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.