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Two giants of European football, Real Madrid CF and FC Bayern München, will lock horns for the sixth time in eight seasons when they meet at the Santiago Bernabéu for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie – with both in dire need of a boost.
Strength in Europe
Neither side has convinced domestically this term, yet in European competition things have been different. Struggling to find the net in the Spanish first division – witness Saturday's 0-0 draw with Real Betis Balompié - Madrid are top scorers in the UEFA Champions League having registered 14 goals en route to a second-placed finish in Group E. Bayern, meanwhile, emerged from a difficult Group B having conceded just three times, a statistic that contrasts somewhat with their record in the Bundesliga.
Nevertheless, Madrid coach Fabio Capello is confident his team will quickly rediscover their European form as the UEFA Champions League returns to the agenda. "I think we're going to play well," he said. "The fans are behind the team and in the Champions League this season they have been fantastic in their support." On the significance of the last-16 tie, the Italian admitted: "This is the biggest game of our season so far. When we play a game like this, it's important for us to do well."
The temptation, therefore, could be to go all out in the hope of building a sizeable advantage ahead of the second leg in Munich on 7 March, but Capello is keeping his cards close to his chest. Asked whether he would be gunning for goals by partnering Gonzalo Higuaín, one of three newcomers to Madrid during the winter, with Ruud van Nistelrooy, the coach countered: "I have my starting eleven clear in my mind." Sergio Ramos and Mahamadou Diarra will not feature, after picking up foot and ankle injuries respectively though Roberto Carlos is expected to start having overcome a thigh problem.
'Problem' sums up Bayern's campaign since the turn of the year – they have lost five out of ten Bundesliga fixtures since completing the UEFA Champions League group stage, prompting the departure of coach Felix Magath. Ottmar Hitzfeld has returned in his place and the two-time UEFA Champions League winner sees obvious parallels between his team and Madrid: "Both sides have similar problems but Madrid and Bayern are legends of European football. Each team has an obvious problem in attack at the moment but Madrid have been much improved in defence." Ominously, Bayern were undone by a solitary strike at TSV Alemannia Aachen at the weekend.
That does not make the Spanish club favourites in his eyes, however. For Hitzfeld, the victors at the Santiago Bernabéu will be the team that best deals with the situation. "It's a pressure game, and those with the best ability to cope with it will ultimately win. Then again, I think Bayern suffer more pressure at home in domestic competition as expectations are so much higher." A win would be a massive result for either side.
Real Madrid CF: Iker Casillas; Míchel Salgado, Iván Helguera, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Carlos; Emerson, Fernando Gago, Guti, David Beckham; Raúl González, Ruud van Nistelrooy.
FC Bayern München: Oliver Kahn; Philipp Lahm, Lucio, Daniel Van Buyten, Willy Sagnol; Hasan Salihamidžić, Owen Hargreaves, Mark van Bommel, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Roy Makaay, Lukas Podolski.
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