Bayern Munich controlled possession, but the Madrid’s counter-attacking fostered the better chances and Karim Benzema’s first-half goal gave the Spanish giants a 1-0 lead from the first leg of their Champions League semifinal at the Bernabeu.
The home side, who had the unwell Gareth Bale on the bench but the fit again Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting lineup, set up compactly, looking to frustrate the defending champions before utilizing their pace on the break. And, after Bayern had dominated the opening exchanges, Carlo Ancelotti’s strategy paid off handsomely. Benzema finished a swift break 19 minutes in and Madrid could have had at least one more before the interval, with Ronaldo and Angel di Maria both going close.
The counter attacks were less frequent after the break and Bayen increasingly pushed for an equalizer. But Madrid’s defense and goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who saved late on from Mario Gotze, held out to inflict a first-ever defeat for Pep Guardiola at the home of his former club Barcelona’s great rivals.
Ancelotti had gone with the same system he employed in their victorious Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona, with four narrow midfielders protecting their back line. Guardiola on the other hand stuck with Philipp Lahm in midfield and Rafinha at right back, a decision which arguably cost his side. Madrid’s best chances, including their goal, all came down Bayern’s right side, while Bayern lacked variety to their play in midfield. His side now has to even be more wary of Madrid’s counter-attacking threat in the return leg, with Ronaldo and Bale likely to be at full fitness and an away goal leaving Bayern needing three. Having lost their first leg in the semifinal for the last three seasons, Madrid are now in their best position ever to claim an unprecedented 10th European Cup and on the way prevent Bayern from becoming the first side to retain the trophy in the Champions League era.
While Madrid played in a style that was familiar to them having spent several seasons trying to negate Guardiola’s Barcelona, under Ancelotti they have become a much more proactive, controlling outfit. Yet Ancelotti stressed in his pre-match press conference that his side would have to be “compact” in order to have success against Bayern and they were exactly that. With Bale on the bench, Ronaldo and Benzema were left up front to counter, with the other eight players tasked with preventing the German champions from working their intricate passing through the middle. Helped by the excellence of Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric in the center of midfield, they were able to fulfill their objective.
It didn’t look like being that way early on, however. Bayern were authoritative in their imposing surroundings from the off. And, unlike during much of their quarterfinal tie against Manchester United, there was real purpose to the Bavarians’ play.
Former Real Madrid winger Arjen Robben went close with a turn and shot from the edge of the box. The closest they came, though, was when Toni Kroos looked set to open the scoring only to see his effort blocked by Pepe. Within seconds the game and perhaps the tie took a definitive turn.
Straight from Pepe’s goal-saving intervention, Benzema won the ball on the edge of his own box to help send Madrid flying upfield for what was their first attack of substance. Ronaldo’s pass was key as he caught out Jerome Boateng with a pass inside him to get Fabio Coentrao in behind. The Portuguese full-back’s low cross exposed Bayern’s other center-back, Dante, and Benzema was on hand for the simplest of finishes.
The lead should soon have been doubled. Again Madrid prospered down the left. Rafinha was slow to get across to Benzema from Modric’s fine pass and the goal-scorer this time supplied the cross to find an unmarked Ronaldo but his finish went high over the bar much to his immense frustration.
Still, the goal had triggered Madrid into pushing up the pitch and applying far better pressure to their opponents. Bayern built momentum toward the end of the period and Robben had an effort blocked, but Madrid finished the half with another glaring opportunity. Again, though, they couldn’t take advantage. Di Maria this time blazed over at the back post, once more after a cross from the left.
Ronaldo tested Manuel Neuer early in the second half, but Madrid were less incisive when in possession after the break. Yet Bayern couldn’t get their own attacking game going, despite their share of possession continuing to remain over the 70 percent mark. Constantly the side who won the Bundesliga title earlier than any side in history but have taken their foot off the gas since, were too labored with the ball, often checking back or taking another unnecessary touch.
It wasn’t until Javi Martinez was introduced, Lahm went to right back and then Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller followed onto the pitch later on that Bayern began to put the Madrid defense under concerted pressure. Bayern now had the ability get down the flanks and have more options to go direct into the box. All three of Bayern’s substitutions had opportunities to get an away goal that would have changed the whole complexion of the tie.
Muller had a shot that deflected wide off of Sergio Ramos, but it was Gotze who was to have Bayern’s best opportunity of the contest. From Muller’s pull-back, Gotze had more time than he appeared to realize and the former Borussia Dortmund took a snap shot that was too close to Casillas and allowed the veteran goalkeeper to make what was still a fine reaction stop. Martinez then failed to make good contact with a header from the resulting corner.
Bayern’s last chance came and went with Muller being denied a clear shot at goal from pointblank range by Alonso and then rightfully having his penalty appeal rejected by referee Howard Webb.
The final whistle meant Madrid are now favorites, but the closing stages should provide encouragement to Guardiola of the path to turning the tie around as he did so often after poor away first legs while in charge of Madrid’s foes.