Bayern rally against Real to set up a German date with Chelsea; Final at the Allianz too tough to call
For many, the invisible hand of destiny was as perceptible as a punch to the gut in yesterday’s classic Champions League encounter between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Even those inclined to ridicule horoscopes, tarot cards and palm readers would have felt the plot of last night’s match was as inevitable as destiny herself.
Having pored over the stats, the parallels with years past and considered the omens, Bayern looked to have one foot, or at least one foot more than Real, in the final against Chelsea.
There was the fact that the tie on 19th May would be played at the Allianz Arena – Die Roten’s home turf.
There was Bayern’s fine record of disposing of Real at the semi-final stages of the European Cup competition, having defeated Madrid in the 1976, 1987 and 2001 semi-finals, scoring at the Bernabeu in two of the three ties.
There was also the fact that Bayern disposed of Atletico Madrid in the 1974 European Cup final, adding a universal appeal to their dominance over Madrileños.
There was a symmetry to the game’s outcome that made the affair seem all but ordained. For instance, it was Arjen Robben who netted the crucial equaliser for the Germans, scoring against his ex teammates – the curse of the former player striking on the grandest of stages.
Just as poignant, it was Bastian Schweinsteiger, vice captain, talisman, German golden boy and fan favourite who lashed home the winning penalty to send the iconic Bavarian side on a date with destiny in familiar territory.
While Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Sergio Ramos – all worth a combined €198 million – missed from 12 yards, “Schweini”, who rose through the ranks at Bayern from the age of 14, never looked like missing.
Adding another piece to the highly subtextualised puzzle, it was Jupp Heynckes, the celebrated German coach and former Real manager, who handed Iker Casillas his Champions League debut in 1997.
Even with the spoiler alerts of strange facts and intriguing coincidental points, the match was always going to be an exciting, entertaining one.
Many held Real as favourites and, before the game, propounded endless lists of reasons, just as doctored by an air of providence, suggesting Real would win.
Why, Los Blancos had Ronaldo and if Messi would uncharacteristically choke on the big stage, just as he did in the Classico, Ronaldo would not.
True to form, Ronaldo netted twice. Madrid fans could also comfort themselves with simple footballing mathematics: they lost last year in the semis against Barca, surely they couldn’t lose again! Could they?
For all its punditry, forecasting and prophesying, football is a game of action, not prediction; its results are dictated by sports stars rather than astrological ones. And yet, yesterday’s action seemed to go according to seemingly divined script.
At half time, hardened football analysts and forward-looking seers (German ones, at least) appeared to be in agreement.
Having taken the lead and etched out a two-goal advantage on the night, Real were all set to knock out Bayern, perhaps even thrashing the Germans.
Considering Ronaldo, Benzema & co have broken the Spanish giant’s goalscoring records; a good thumping did not seem out of the realm of possibility.
Bayern were defensively disjointed, haggard and dazed like a well-prepared boxer suddenly surprised by the ferocity of his opponent’s first punch.
On the other hand, going forward, the Germans were typically (and stereotypically) efficient, daring and simply, very, very good.
Boasting world class talents like the dangerous double Rs – Ribery and Robben – as well as elite international stars in Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Gomez, Bayern were always going to be a threat and on the night they were. Perhaps even more so than the first leg.
Putting the efforts of the Germans into perspective, a number of observers suggested Bayern’s mettle was just as impressive as Chelsea’s against Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. Bayern dominated play, kept most of the ball and created a number of gilt edged chances.
By the end of the night the stats would read 55.4% possession, 504 passes to 403 and 20 shots to 12 all in favour of the Bavarians. Bayern were the better side, despite conceding twice.
Kroos was excellent in midfield, manipulating the ball as well as play. Gustavo was outstanding, astounding with his energy, positioning and drive, breaking up play whenever necessary and the centre back pairing of Badstuber and Boateng grew into colossal figures after a terribly shaky start. The two young central defenders represent what many recognise as Bayern’s weakness – the defence.
Having started Lahm and Alaba as full backs, Heynckes’ side is built on a back four of considerable talent. His defence is made up of fantastically gifted players whom, individually, are as good and talented as they come, but collectively need refining.
For years, Bayern have been beset by a porous backline, having lost the talismanic Lucio. They appear to have found a promising pairing in Badstuber and Boateng, resolving the longstanding issue at left back with the brilliant, highly promising Alaba – another quality, versatile and mercurial talent on Bayern’s books.
What they need is time; to gel and grow, fostering an understanding that should guide Bayern to further success.
However, what they also lack is a commanding presence and voice, three of the back four being relatively inexperienced and callow.
Some still question whether or not they are good enough, but on the evidence of the last 70 minutes of the game, they have what it takes to win finals.
In spite of all their successes and records and stars, Real, intriguingly, have very much the same problem as Bayern.
Where Mourinho’s defenders are far, far more accomplished and quite simply a better unit, they too are prone to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos and Marcelo have been exposed this season from time to time, displaying a vulnerability that betrays their gifts and standing.
As with Bayern, even more so, they are individually fantastic, each member of the quartet being one of the world’s best in their respective positions. They too, however, need time.
Ramos, for the first time in a few seasons, has been repositioned – permanently it appears – to his centre back berth, taking over the celebrated, but increasingly less influential Ricardo Carvalho.
The Iberian pairing in front of Casillas will work, but needs to work to match the quality and efficiency of Real’s striking and midfield departments.
Unfortunately for the Spaniards, the difference in quality, even in one fleeting moment, told last night, allowing Robben to score.
Chelsea, lying in wait, will have gone through the motions watching the game: they would have been entertained, pensive, respectful, wary and optimistic.
Bayern have all the tools to dismantle the Blues’ hopes, but Chelsea also possess the quality to spoil the party in Munich.
Both sides will be depleted by suspensions and both sides will field slightly creaking, but defiant defences.
The two teams will be aware of just how many bullets they have in their guns, using their knowing experience to decide when to shoot and when to hold off.
It will be a testing game of deliberation, with plenty of sizing up and sparring; a game in which the contenders have what it takes to deliver decisive knock out blows, but also display crippling knacks for errors.
Both sides are wily and experienced, big and muscular.
It really is a 50/50 final, in spite of its settings, presenting the chance for either side to win.
The last time Terry, Cole and Lampard faced Schweinsteiger, Muller and Lahm, the three Lions were humiliated and eliminated.
The last time Bayern faced an English side in a cup final, the Bavarians were devastated.
It’s anyone’s guess. I’ll leave it to the pundits and the prophets.