Winning the Champions League title two seasons in a row is proving to be one of the great challenges of the modern football era, and even if you happen to be Pep Guardiola, and your players the mighty Bayern Munich of 2014, there are still no guarantees.
Bayern were beaten in Madrid in what was undoubtedly the meeting of the two strongest sides left in the competition, and now it will take the legendary self-belief of the German champions to rescue this tie in the second leg. They could hardly ignore the fact that it was only six minutes from time when the substitute Mario Gotze stung the hands of Iker Casillas with the first shot that really tested the Madrid goalkeeper.
Bayern had taken the game to the home team in the first half and were hit on the counter-attack by Karim Benzema’s goal for their troubles. It seems that they – and Guardiola – know only one way, and that is to dominate, attack and await the crumbling of their opponent’s resolves. Yet with Carlo Ancelotti’s team, the resolve never wavered and he set his side up to punish Bayern selectively.
Perhaps this really is the year for Madrid’s tenth Champions League title, the first in 12 years at the club that still feels confident enough of its reputation to unfurl a banner before the match proclaiming themselves “Kings of Europe”. In the latter stages, Gareth Bale came on for Cristiano Ronaldo himself and, embarked on one run down the right channel that had the defender Dante trailing in second place.
For Chelsea and Atletico Madrid there can be no doubt that the winner of this semi-final is the favourite to win the trophy. In terms of entertainment it was a game on a very different level to the goalless draw further south across town at the Vicente Calderon stadium but even so, it never quite caught fire in the manner one might have expected – although that may yet come on Tuesday in Munich.
From Howard Webb, the English referee in charge, there was another solid performance. He was put under pressure by the Bayern players to award a penalty in time added on at the end of the game when another substitute Thomas Muller claimed a foul by Xabi Alonso when they lunged for the ball together. The replays showed that Webb was right to wave the play on.
It was a brave approach from Guardiola, one that ensured that on their own patch in front of their own supporters, and in a Champions League semi-final, Real Madrid found themselves penned into their own half for long periods of the first half. The traffic flowed largely in one direction; the problem for Bayern was when it came back at them.
The dominant machine that Guardiola has fine-tuned this season, that scoops up possession and carries it in waves back at opponents is a formidable force. They were excellent before the break at doing just that but when you considered the golascoring chances they created there was scarcely anything of note. In fact, you could say that Madrid had the best four of the first half and in spite of the inferiority in so many areas of the field they should have had more than one goal by the break.
Most notable of the misses was Ronaldo’s failure to steer a right-footed shot on target when the ball came at him fast from the left wing cross of Benzema. Of course, it was not a simple finish, coming across him at speed and at height, requiring one brilliant, decisive swish of the boot. But this is the master goalscorer, and he wasn’t up to it on this occasion.
That chance on 28 minutes was made by Luka Modric, scampering from right to left to open up the right flank of Bayern. Not that they took too much opening up. It was from that side that the goal came, ten minutes earlier, when Fabio Coentrao ran into acres of space down the left, played in by Ronaldo, and put over a perfect ball that eluded everyone in the box and just required Benzema’s careful attention at the back post.
The Bayern players looked at one another in disbelief. The ball had come almost directly from one of the best Bayern chances, a knock down by Mario Mandzukic for Toni Kroos and his shot that was blocked by Sergio Ramos. In the sequence that led to the Real goal there was an opportunity for Bastian Schweinsteiger to take back possession, as he and Philipp Lahm had done for most of the half. But on this occasion he was just too late.
Four minutes before the break there was another chance for Madrid, a back post shot from Angel Di Maria which he tried to blast up past Manuel Neuer but instead misjudged horribly.
That chance for Di Maria came as Real took a greater stake in the game and the second half was a much more even contest in possession terms. Still it was hard to recall the kind of chances for Bayern that might have given them an equaliser as the game reached its later stages.
Guardiola made three substitutions in the space of five minutes, bringing on Javi Martinez in place of Rafinha with Martinez taking Lahm’s place in midfield as the captain moved back to right-back. Gotze took the place of the lacklustre Ribery on the left side. Schweinsteiger was replaced by Thomas Muller who in turn took the playmaker role from Kroos.
The best chance of the half had been a low left-footed drive from Ronaldo at the near post of Neuer, designed to deceive the goalkeeper with the speed of the strike. Neuer saved that and it proved to be the last significant act from Ronaldo who was replaced by Bale with 18 minutes remaining. Bale, who had been suffering from flu, switched with Benzema between the left and central positions.
It was a game made for the Welshman to pinch a second goal that would put Real in such a promising position when they go to Munich. He outpaced Dante once but the opportunity to open up Bayern never quite arose and for the last few minutes Real found themselves defending, with Gotze’s shot and Muller’s penalty claim the last pieces of drama. Nevertheless, for Bale, the season looks like it still holds a great deal of promise.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Casillas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao; Modric, Alonso, Di Maria; Isco, Benzema, Ronaldo.
Subs: Varane/Pepe 72, Bale/Ronaldo 72, Isco/Illarramendi 83
Bayern Munich (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Rafinha, Boateng, Dante, Alaba; Lahm, Schweinsteiger; Robben, Kroos, Ribery; Mandzukic.
Subs: Martinez/Rafinha 67, Gotze/Ribery 72, Muller/Schweinsteiger 73
Man of the match: Alonso
Referee: H Webb (England)