Bayern Munich v Real Madrid: Is this the end of the 'BBC'?
Real Madrid's trip to Bayern Munich takes place almost four years to the day since Pep Guardiola pulled off what he considers "the biggest f***-up of my life as a coach".
On April 29, 2014, Guardiola's Bayern were put to the sword by Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League semi-finals, swatted aside by Carlo Ancelotti's ruthless counter-attacking machine.
Guardiola had planned meticulously in the build-up to contain the visitors' threat on the break, particularly the front three of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, he changed his mind – and formation – at the last minute, and it cost his side emphatically.
It might be the nadir of Guardiola's career in the dugout, but it showed just what that Madrid front three could do. While the first two goals from Sergio Ramos came from set-pieces, and the fourth a piece of free-kick trickery by Ronaldo, Madrid's third towards the end of a devastating first half sticks in the mind.
Angel Di Maria sent the ball from the edge of the box to Benzema, who held off Dante and played in Bale, who burst into the area and teed up Ronaldo, who shot straight through Manuel Neuer. The whole move took 10 seconds and comprised nine touches of the ball. It was brutal, brilliant, clinical football. It was the 'BBC' at their very best.
It shows how far their collective stock has fallen that, when Madrid return to the Allianz Arena on Wednesday, only Ronaldo is certain to start. The form and fitness of Bale and Benzema has seen them supplanted for key games with increasing regularity. It would be a surprise if none of Isco, Marco Asensio or Lucas Vazquez were not in the XI on Wednesday; in fact, the 'BBC's most recent start, in January, came 279 days after their last.
279 - Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale will start a game together for Real Madrid in all competitions for the first time since 23rd April 2017 against Barcelona in La Liga, 279 days ago. Trio. pic.twitter.com/MYTZ7o1KGX
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) 27 January 2018
Benzema is still Ronaldo's favoured strike partner, the man whose selfless runs so often give him space to shine; he also has the backing of Zinedine Zidane. But it's an indulgence too many fans are unwilling to give.
Benzema has scored nine goals all season, and just two in the Champions League, which came in the 6-0 thrashing of APOEL. He has 10 assists, but none in Europe. Two goal involvements in a run to the Champions League semi-finals is a long way from adequate for a Real Madrid number nine, whatever his importance to their best player. By contrast, he mustered five goals and five assists in 11 appearances in 2013-14 and scored in the 1-0 first-leg win over Bayern in Spain.
Life is scarcely better for Bale. So often hampered by muscle problems since that explosive first season when, like Benzema, he contributed to 10 goals in the Champions League, he simply can't be relied upon for their biggest matches any longer. His only goal in this season's tournament came in the group-stage win at Borussia Dortmund in September. He didn't start again in Europe until the second-leg loss to Juventus in the previous round, when he was dragged off at the break.
Ronaldo has made up the numbers since the turn of the year and has already scored 15 times in the run to the last four, but the BBC's declination was laid bare in the autumn months. While Ronaldo found it tough to get going in LaLiga, and with nobody able to shoulder that responsibility, Madrid drifted out of the title race almost before it had got going. If Ronaldo doesn't do it, it's getting increasingly common that Bale and Benzema can't.
All-time group stage top scorers:
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) 4 December 2017
It means the tie with Bayern is crucial for them both. President Florentino Perez is reportedly growing more irked with the pair by the week, Bale in particular, and would be willing to listen to offers at the end of the season. The Wales star will have no shortage of suitors from the Premier League and recouping close to the €100million they paid Tottenham in 2013 would help them spruce up the squad. Benzema, meanwhile, would almost certainly be offloaded if a deal for Robert Lewandowski were struck.
Should Madrid lose the tie, with Bale and Benzema doing little to aid the cause, they could be joining Zidane in looking for new pastures. Repeat their performances from four years ago, though, and Perez – not to mention the fans – might put the white handkerchiefs away.
The 'BBC' is facing crunch time again. They certainly can't afford a "f***-up" of their own.