Just one win away from securing a third Bundesliga title in three years at the club, all while playing in a sparkling eye-catching style, it would be quite harsh to describe Pep Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich as a failure. Yet, having taken over immediately following a treble triumph under Jupp Heynckes, only lifting the Champions League title was ever going to be enough for Guardiola’s time to be deemed an unqualified success.
Now with his exit to Manchester City already confirmed this summer, the man who led Barcelona to two Champions League titles is facing his last chance to silence all doubters. But first he must guide his team to the final. And, after defeats to Real Madrid and Barcelona at the semifinal stage in the last two seasons, it is another Spanish club that awaits in 2016. While Atlético Madrid may not have the pedigree of the two Clasico giants, it is hard to imagine Bayern taking Diego Simeone’s relentlessly intense side lightly.
The challenge this time promises to be a very different, but arguably just as difficult, one. Against Barcelona and Real Madrid, Guardiola’s expansive philosophy was exposed by devastating attacking players. A 4-0 loss to Real Madrid in leg two of the 2014 semifinal and a 3-0 loss to Barcelona in the first leg a year ago made Bayern’s exits particularly decisive and painful.
This time, Bayern won’t have to face the same attacking threat from the opposition. Instead, the challenge will be to break down the most feared defense in Europe. The contrast in the two teams’ philosophies and strengths could not be more contrasting. It will be the team that has scored the most goals in the Champions League this season against the team that has conceded the fewest.
Bayern Munich have struck a remarkable 28 goals in just 10 games—Atlético have scored exactly half as much—while Atlético have conceded just five in 10 games. And, having already shut out the most prolific attacking trio in history, Bayern are unlikely to hold any fear for Atlético.
After a sending off for Fernando Torres, Atlético had gone down 2-1 in the first leg of their quarterfinal at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. But in the return match, Simeone’s side put on a defensive masterpiece to leave Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar befuddled and frustrated. Meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann, the team’s undoubted attacking star, grabbed two goals to send Atlético back to the semifinals.
And, just as Guardiola has powerful motivation to go all the way this season, so too does his counterpart at the Vicente Calderon. Two years ago, Atlético were just two minutes away from beating Real Madrid in the final and securing a La Liga and Champions League double that would have ranked as one of the great achievements in this history of the modern game. Instead, Sergio Ramos headed in a late, late equalizer before Real Madrid went onto blitz their neighbors in extra time.
An extraordinary double is tantalizingly close once again, with Atlético level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga, and only behind on their head-to-head record, after five successive wins. Yet, already overcoming significant financial disadvantages just to compete with Spain’s and Europe’s elite, Atlético will have to succeed on Wednesday without defensive leader and inspiration Diego Godín. The Uruguayan center-back suffered suffered a hamstring injury in last Wednesday’s win over Athletic Bilbao.
There is better news, with Godín's compatriot José María Giménez not fully fit, and set to partner another impressive young defender, Lucas Hernández. That partnership will be responsible for trying to stop Bayern’s chief attacking duo of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller, who have scored 69 goals between them this season, 16 in the Champions League alone.
And, as Guardiola tries to get over the semifinal hurdle, he can be boosted by the fact that the fitness problems that have plagued his squad at this stage of the past two seasons are far less severe this time around. Only Arjen Robben and Holger Badstuber are currently unavailable, while defender Jerome Boating has been declared fit and names in the squad to travel to Madrid.
Prediction: It promises to be a fascinating duel amid the ultimate contrast in styles. It makes it tougher on Atlético, though, having the first leg at home. Simeone will surely have wanted to have the first match away and to keep things tight before going back to the Vicente Calderon knowing what they had to do to progress. Instead, they will now be compelled to come out of their shell to an extent on Wednesday.
Stopping Bayern will also be tough because of the fact that, while they don’t have the sam individual quality of Barcelona, they have more weapons and more varied means of attacking. Not only can they play a patient buildup game through the middle, but they have the pace and trickery out wide, together with a physical presence in the middle. Against a defensive missing Godín, Bayern may well get an away goal that gives them a slight edge heading back to Munich.
Predicted score: Atlético Madrid 1-1 Bayern Munich