Bayern are hoping for a clear victory in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie with Benfica. This would put them in the driver's seat as they aim to reach the semifinals for a fifth straight year.
After the drama of the round-of-16 tie against Juventus, Pep Guardiola's side drew a considerably weaker opponent, the only team left in the competition not to come from one of Europe's "big five" leagues. Benfica are a swift, attacking side, but they have never qualified for the semifinals, since the European Cup was rebranded in 1992.
Bayern are coming off a lackluster display against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga on the weekend, when Franck Ribery's brilliant bicycle kick in the first half scored the only goal they would need to maintain their five-point lead at the top of the table. Bayern's performance on Saturday prompted some post match soul-searching in the Bavarian capital.
"We definitely had the Champions League game against Benfica on Tuesday in our heads," admitted top scorer Robert Lewandowski. "We have to play much, much better against Benfica."
The club's CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, offered a similar assessment, but countered suggestions that Bayern should cruise into the last four without little stress. "(Some of the media) have written the game off as a bye into the next round, but it's not a foregone conclusion," he said.
Guardiola, meanwhile, said he was impressed with Benfica, who to the quarterfinals by beating Zenit St Petersburg. The Spaniard is acutely aware of the dangers at this level, having seen his side lose 3-1 to Benfica's Portuguese rivals Porto in the first leg of their quarterfinal tie last season.
Mario Götze, who has started in two of Bayern's last three league outings, warned of further complacency: "The game is dangerous. We have to remind ourselves about what we experienced in Porto last year."
Bayern overturned that deficit with a 6-1 win in the second leg played at the Allianz Arena, but this time, they are starting the tie on home turf. On paper, the German champions have the clear advantage, having never lost to Portuguese opposition at home.
The Guttmann curse
Benfica were a major force in the early years of Europe's most prestigious club competition, which began as the European Cup in 1955. Under the guidance of Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann, the Portuguese giants won two consecutive European Cups, in 1961 and 1962 and got to the final three more times by the end of the 1960s.
It was in the 1962 final that a 20-year-old Eusebio rose to prominence on the international stage as Benfica defeated Real Madrid 5-3 in Amsterdam. In the that match, he outshone the great Ferenc Puskas, who scored a hat trick, by scoring two goals of his own - including the winner.
In the months that followed the final, Guttmann, the architect of Benfica's golden period in the sixties, acrimoniously departed after disputes over pay, predicting: "Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions." Benfica supporters regard Guttmann's comments as something of a curse, since the club has not won a European title in 54 years.
Benfica are no longer able to compete with Europe's biggest clubs, but they have been a hub for precocious talents who have moved on to bigger things. Angel Di Maria, David Luiz, Ramires, Axel Witsel and Serbian duo Nemanja Matic and Lazar Markovic have passed through before leaving for big transfers fees. The current jewel is 18-year-old Renato Sanches who has been linked with Manchester United, among others.
Benfica are top of their domestic league and on course for a third successive title, but they have taken a back seat to Porto in Europe in recent years. Porto have picked up three trophies in their past 13 seasons of European competition.
Speaking to UEFA.com, Benfica coach Rui Vitoria conceded that his team, which was once a force in the old European Cup, stood little chance of winning the Champions League this season.
"Now, when economic differences [between Benfica and the very biggest clubs] are so much greater, things aren't as easy to achieve. There are many stronger teams, in a sporting and a financial sense, but at this point in the competition you have to study, prepare and have the mindset to win. We have had that all along and it's what we will look to show in the quarterfinal."
rd/pfd (AFP, AP)