As the 90th minute of the game approached, Madrid fans were in heaven. The score was 1-1; with an away goal in the bag and a tied scoreline, Madrid would be heavy favourites to progress at home. Bayern would have to chase a victory or a high-scoring draw in Madrid, leaving plenty of space for the world’s best counter-attacking team to blitz through and score.
But it wasn’t to be. Yet again Madrid’s lack of defensive focus came to the fore, as Gomez bundled in a late equalizer (after coming close with a couple of dangerous headers and a half-volley, the goal went in off his left knee after ricocheting off his right foot…). 2-1. Bayern had their win, and they’ll be full off confidence heading to the Bernabeu.
It was a game where Real Madrid saw some astounding Champions League stats sullied. Coming into this game, Madrid hadn’t conceded a first-half goal in their last 26 Champions League games. Before this game, Madrid hadn’t trailed any opposition this season in the Champions League. Bayern made sure both records went out the window within a quarter of an hour
Here are some of the major talking points that have come up in the aftermath of this game.
1. Gomez’s late sucker punch was a bitter pill to swallow.
This is the second time in this season’s Champions League knockout stage that Real conceded a 90th minute goal away from home. It happened previously in the Round of 16 first leg in Moscow, with Pontus Wernbloom scoring late to give the Russian Army side a 1-1 draw. This time, it was Mario Gomez, who looked threatening all game long and got the goal he deserved late on. Gomez truly is a wonderful no. 9 with a problematic physical presence. Sergio Ramos may be a big guy, but in front of Gomez he doesn’t look it. And what’s great about Gomez is that he moves very fast for a man his size. His performance ultimately deserved a goal, but he might want to thank a couple of Madrid players who did their best to help him get it…
2. Coentrao and Pepe committed silly errors in the build-up to the goal.
In my preview, I wrote that Marcelo’s tendency to commit to tackles too early would be suicidal against Robben and Lahm. I alluded to Coentrao being a safer, more defensively sound option. And while Coentrao did fairly well to keep Robben out of the game for long stretches, it was ultimately his decision to commit to a lazy tackle that resulted in the goal. When faced with Philipe Lahm, Coentrao failed to stay on his feet (conventional wisdom says you stay on your feet when facing a speedy winger or fullback) and attempted a lazy, poorly directed tackle on Lahm. Lahm skipped past the challenge and was left with acres of time and space to cross. What I feared Robben would do to Marcelo was instead acted out by Lahm on Coentrao.
But Coentrao wasn’t the only guilty party on the goal. Lahm’s driven cross was a good one, but Pepe had the opportunity to slide and knock the ball out of play past the near post. But for some reason he chose not to, and Gomez was able to bundle home.
3. The Ozil/Di Maria experiment didn’t work.
One of the most interesting tactical aspects of the game was Mourinho’s decision to temporarily switch Di Maria and Ozil’s positions. Midway through the first half, Ozil was shunted out onto the right flank (where he has played before for Madrid mind you) while Di Maria played centrally almost as a number 10. This change was probably made to provide more pressing and defensive discipline down the middle, as Di Maria is the most defensively disciplined of Madrid’s attackers.
Problem is though that Di Maria is no number 10. While he does have the ability to pick out a good through pass, his first instinct is to dribble and try to beat players with pace and trickery. In a crowded central midfield against an organized Bayern side, Di Maria had no joy. Mourinho seemed to realize this and switched Di Maria and Ozil back to their natural positions in the second half.
Di Maria generally had a very poor game, dribbling like a headless chicken at times. There was very little of the guile and intelligence that we’ve come to expect from him. Clearly, El Fideo is still working up to match sharpness after his recent return from injury.
4. Poor Alonso = Poor Real Madrid
In my preview, I alluded to Madrid’s over-dependence on Alonso, and the fact that their play suffers considerably when the Red Beard isn’t playing or isn’t playing well. Bayern did a fantastic job pressuring Alonso. While he did play some fine long-range passes, he was otherwise unable to control the play as he is accustomed to doing, and cut an exhausted figure by the end of the game. Madrid fans have been pleading all season long for Sahin to be integrated into the lineup in order to give Alonso some much-needed rest, but this hasn’t really happened.
As I feared before the game, Bayern have figured out how to minimize Alonso’s influence. Come the 2nd leg, Mourinho will have to figure out a way to counter this if Real are to get a victory.
5. Mourinho’s substitutions were not (completely) to blame.
Here’s a look at the three substitions:
70 min: Ozil off, Marcelo on – after Coentrao had done well to hold his position against Robben in the first half, the Dutchman was beginning to pick up his game in the second half. Mourinho decided to send on Marcelo to play on the left-wing and help keep Robben and Lahm in check. Additionally, sending in Marcelo would mean that Ronaldo would be brought into the game more. Anyone who’s watched a Real Madrid game in the past couple of seasons knows that Ronaldo thrives when he has Marcelo on the overlap. Therefore, sending on Marcelo seemed a sound tactical strategy at the time. The decision to sub off Ozil made sense as he was clearly beginning to tire, and needed rest ahead of El Clasico (for the record, this is the gazillionth time Ozil has been subbed off on the 70-minute mark by Mourinho).
However, Marcelo’s positioning didn’t make a whole lot of sense as he didn’t stick to the left wing as I thought he would. Instead he drifted to the middle and even found himself on the right wing, which is where he committed that nasty and unnecessary challenge on Thomas Mueller. Most importantly, he was nowhere to be found when Lahm skinned Coentrao on the left flank. Therefore, while it seemed to make sense to send Marcelo on, the instructions he was given were clearly partly responsible for the Gomez goal.
79 min: Di Maria off, Granero on – as I mentioned earlier, Di Maria had a poor game and it was only ever a matter of time before he came off. By introducing Granero, Mourinho hoped Madrid would have more ball possession in midfield, as well as an additional body in midfield to help defend the surge of Bayern attacks. This unfortunately didn’t work out as Granero saw very little of the ball.
84 min: Benzema off, Higuain on – Mourinho sent on Higuain to provide fresher legs upfront, with the hope that Pipita would be able to pressure Bayern’s defenders and midfielders. In addition, with Bayern constantly surging forward, Madrid were looking to attack on the break, and Higuain’s runs and off-the-ball movement make him perfect for this form of attack. Some people have suggested that Kaka should have come on and Ronaldo should have played as centre-forward. While it’s true that CR7 is a good centre-forward, playing him there would have meant that Marcelo would have been the only speedy attacking outlet, with Di Maria having been subbed off earlier. Therefore I completely understand Mourinho’s reasons for making this change.
6. A tired Madrid will have to overcome a fresh Bayern in the 2nd leg.
Had Madrid been scheduled to play any team other than Barca this weekend, Mourinho would have been able to rest multiple players for what will be a high-pressure 2nd leg in Madrid next Wednesday. But as luck would have it, Madrid play none other than their direct title rivals this Saturday. The marginal 4-point lead means that should Madrid lose to Barca, the Cules will have all the momentum and confidence going into the final stretch of the league.
Whether Madrid win, draw or lose on Saturday, one thing is for certain – the game will take a lot out of the players physically and mentally. Games against Barca always involve a lot of running around and chasing shadows, and demand the highest levels of concentration. Unfortunately, the close title race means Mourinho will be loathe to rest too many players. Or will he? With Mourinho, you never know. He will have to find a way to intelligently rotate his players without reducing the quality of the lineup too much. He has his work cut out for him; then again, this is why they pay him the big $$$s. Or should I say €€€s.
On the contrary, Bayern Munich can afford to rest their entire starting line-up this weekend should they so wish. Bayern have no chance of wresting the Bundesliga crown away from Borussia Dortmund, so coach Jupp Heynckes will be able to rest all his star men to keep them fresh and hungry for the Madrid game. Expect at least half the lineup that will take to the Bernabeu next week to be benched.
Ultimately, what this means is that a physically tired and mentally exhausted Real Madrid will have to face a fresh Bayern side who, despite the disappointment of falling behind in their domestic title race, have their tails up following their 1st leg victory in Munich.
The bottom line: Given Madrid’s poor performance, a 1-2 reverse away from home is far from a disastrous result given the precious away goal. Madrid always score goals at home, so if they improve their defending, they should be able to progress. At this point the tie is very finely balanced indeed. I’d give Bayern a 55:45 advantage going into the 2nd leg – not so much due to the aggregate scoreline itself, but due to the fact they will be fitter and fresher than Real Madrid come the 2nd leg.
Interestingly enough, the last time Madrid lost a Champions League knockout round first leg 1-2 away in Munich, they not only overcame the deficit in the 2nd leg but went on to win the Champions League… this happened in 2002, when Madrid lost the first leg of the quarterfinals to Bayern 1-2, before triumphing 2-0 at home. I’m not necessarily implying that history will repeat itself, but I am saying that Real Madrid still have a very good chance of progressing. As Mourinho said, Real Madrid won’t need to pull off a historic victory of biblical proportions to make the final. “A normal victory” (Mou’s words) like a 1-0 or 3-1 would be sufficient. Bayern did very well to restrict Real Madrid to just the one goal in Munich, but Madrid could well be a different story altogether. As Real Madrid legend Juanito once said,
“90 minutes at the Bernabeu is a long time.”