The finals of the UEFA Champions League will for the first time see a local derby as pluck Atletico Madrid (fresh from outthinking, outpacing and outmuscling Mourinho’s Chelsea) aim to make it a dream double by wrapping up the Champions league in addition to the La Liga title that is entirely in their hands. What makes this a truly wonderful story is that they have done so after selling Falcao, their prolific goalscorer and have strengthened significantly less as compared to Real or Barcelona. Seems like a lovely story. However, standing in their way are a team that made Bayern Munich look like David Moyes was in charge (only sterile possession, ponderous offence, no incisiveness, brittle defending). This is a team that will feature Gareth Bale, Angel di Maria, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric (who was monumental against Bayern) and to top things off a certain Cristiano. Before I analyze, the key aspects of this game, it behooves me to analyze what turned out to be tactically stimulating and scintillating semifinals.
Real Madrid v. Bayern Munich
On paper, this looked like a mouth-watering tie and it lived up to its billing in terms of entertainment value if not actual closeness on the scoreline. Bayern Munich came into the tie after pushing Manchester United aside but for long portions of the tie (precisely till the time that Patrice Evra smashed in an absolute piledriver) lacked incisiveness and a cutting edge as United managed to defend reasonably well. This was considered a mere blip for a team that had blown away the rest of the German league and had deservedly stepped off the gas after wrapping up the domestic title in record time.
Real Madrid on the other hand came through a much tougher test against Borussia Dortmund who despite being rotten in the first leg at Madrid managed to scare the living daylights out of Real almost equalling the aggregate score in the second leg. They had Madrid on the ropes but could not land the required punch. Madrid were in brilliant form in the league with all of their players delivering.
Carlo Ancelotti set his team up to play on the break. Real missed Bale through injury and started with Isco, Ronaldo and Di Maria behind Benzema. Modric and Xabi Alonso played in the middle with Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe and Coentrao (who has been phenomenal the past few months) in front of Casillas. Bayern crucially started Lahm at the base of midfield playing Rafinha at right back and it turned out to be a terrible decision. Real managed only 30% of the possession but whenever they did, they moved the ball quickly and isolated Rafinha against either Ronaldo or Isco or Coentrao and it was Coentrao’s cross after Ronaldo’s through ball that left Benzema with the simple task of tapping the ball in from 6 yards out. The move had begun with a Toni Kroos shot being blocked at the edge of the Madrid penalty and less than half a minute later Real were ahead. Tellingly, the pattern remained throughout the game. Bayern lacked ideas and even when they did have invention, Real were comfortable in dealing with the danger. To contextualize, Ronaldo had 4 shots on target for Real whereas Bayern mustered only three. Real were unable to add to their advantage however and the tie was balanced on a knife edge with Real only holding a 1-0 advantage with a hostile second leg in Bavaria to go.
The second leg saw the return of Gareth Bale to the starting lineup at Isco’s expense. Bayern played Lahm at Right back with Muller and Mandzukic starting ahead of Kroos and Schweinsteiger. Robben and Ribery played on either flank. Real Madrid were set up in exactly the same way as the first leg with instructions to press the opposition only when they were about 15 yards inside Madrid’s half. Angel di Maria dropped into the role of a left sided central midfielder alongside Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric. Ronaldo started on the left and Bale on the right in what was ostensibly a 4-3-3 formation. But even an amateur could spot the transition in formation when Real were defending. They switched to a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Benzema tasked with making sure that the center backs do not carry the ball deep into the Madrid half. This allowed Real to play the ball out of defense quickly when they did counter and it was made even more possible by the ball carrying skills of Di Maria and Luka Modric who typified the term word class in his complete performance against Munich.
The first two goals came from set pieces which was surprising given the meticulous nature of Bayern Munich and all German teams. The first goal was a horror show with Sergio Ramos having criminal amounts of space at the back post and no Bayern player anywhere close to challenging him as he powered a header through/under (depending on the way you see that goal) Neuer. The second was once again terrible defending from Bayern as a free kick from the right was headed on at the front post for Ramos to gleefully grab a second and effectively kill the tie. It was the third goal that really killed Bayern though. Bale intercepted a Ribery pass at the edge of his own box and laid it to Di Maria. Di Maria took a few touches and knocked it forward to Benzema on the halfway line. The time elapsed from the time that Bale won it to Benzema’s first touch was about 9 seconds. Benzema’s next touch was a through ball to Bale who was running full tilt past Dante and was at the edge of the Bayern area about 13 seconds from the time that he had won the ball back at the other end of the field. He laid it on to Ronaldo who had made up ground on the left and Ronaldo finished with aplomb about 15 seconds after Bale intercepted the pass. There are many phrases that came to my head when I saw this but even now I can’t quite streamline the beauty of this move. This was brilliant football. It was pure. It was breathless stuff. It was captivating and it stunned Bayern. Ronaldo added a fourth with a free kick that was struck along the ground and under the wall. But Real could have added more. They looked like scoring every time they broke forward. Ancelotti epitomised the counter-attack with a ruthless display. Eventually they settled for a 4-0 scoreline.
Key praise must also be laid out for Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, Fabio Coentrao and Dani Carvajal. Carvajal and Coentrao kept Ribery and Robben in their pockets. They made world beaters look like petulant nobodies who could not dribble to save their lives let alone cross the ball into dangerous areas. Coentrao did not allow Robben any space and Carvajal did the same to Ribery which resulted in Ribery slapping (or attempting to) Carvajal. Alonso earned a booking in the first half sliding in on Schweinsteiger which means that he is suspended for the final but both him and Modric were phenomenal in distributing the ball when they had it. But it was their defensive work that earns them special praise. They dominated Kroos and Schweinsteiger and whichever of Muller or Gotze was on the pitch. They closed the central route and protected Ramos and Pepe. Modric was terrific receiving the ball in tight spaces and holding on to possession and laying passes on to Bale, Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema to begin counter attacks. The first leg goal scored by Benzema was a result of a purposeful run from Modric before he passed the ball to Ronaldo who subsequently slipped in Coentrao whose cross was met by Benzema….
Real realized that playing against Bayern was a lot like playing against Barcelona. Whereas Mourinho preferred to mostly kick Barcelona around, Ancelotti used the pace at his disposal to engineer a tactical masterclass. Real have shown themselves to be capable of playing the possession game but here against Bayern displayed tenacity, speed and sudden explosive football to render Bayern inert. Blitzkrieg was coined on similar grounds.