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Iain Macintosh
Sunday, Apr 27, 2014

Sports

Champions League: Lucky Bayern

The New Paper | Iain Macintosh | Sunday, Apr 27, 2014

Disciplined: Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos (left) and Pepe blocking a pass to Bayern Munich's Frank Ribery.

Real Madrid will take a narrow lead into the second leg of this Champions League semi-final but, after an engaging tussle with Bayern Munich, they will know that it could have been more.

Having been forced onto the back foot in their own stadium for 19 minutes, Real took the lead and could have added a couple more with a devastating volley of counter-attacks.

Cristiano Ronaldo alone will know how he managed to miss the goal from such close range midway through the first half.

Wide open and just 12 metres from goal, he smashed the ball over Manuel Neuer's goal and Real's chance to floor the European champions had gone.

A wasted header and a spurned chance from Isco compounded the error.

They may yet live to regret their profligacy.

Bayern had started the game in irrepressible form, piling the pressure on Real in front of their own fans, an almost unheard of act of impudence.

Real coach Carlo Ancelotti could only watch nervously from the sidelines as the red wave poured forward again and again, Bayern's moves held together with streams of intricate passes.

Pep Guardiola has won over most of his doubters this season, taking the best team in Europe and attempting to make them even better, landing the Bundelsiga title in record time, taking the team to a domestic final and the last four of Europe.

But there will always be those who question Guardiola's pursuit of aesthetic perfection, especially when it comes at the cost of their stability.

The former Barcelona boss' decision to field Rafinha at right back, allowing Philipp Lahm to orchestrate the centre of midfield, looked like a gamble too far for Bayern.

BAD MOVE

It was Rafinha who was caught out of position when a Bayern attack collapsed and Real broke down the left flank.

Ronaldo played a glorious ball into space for Fabio Coentrao, the Portuguese fullback cut the ball across the six-yard box and Karim Benzema finished from close range.

It was their first attack of the half.

Bayern looked shell-shocked.

It was not the only time that Rafinha was caught out of possession and with the masterful Javi Martinez on the bench, one wondered if it might not have been better to leave Lahm in his natural position.

"On the counter-attack, Real Madrid are unstoppable," said Guardiola.

"They have great athletes and if you allow them to run, they will take advantage."

Guardiola had hoped that Real would be stripped of two of those athletes but, while a bout of flu left Gareth Bale on the bench, Ronaldo shook off a hamstring injury to give an impressive performance.

More impressive still were Ancelotti's tactics.

The Italian used a flat back four and guarded it with the hardworking Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric, with Isco and Angel di Maria providing cover for the fullbacks.

It looked, for the most part, like an old fashioned 4-4-2 but with explosive pace down the flanks.

Bayern were lured in, lost among the white shirts and then punished on the break.

Substitute Mario Goetze could have equalised late on when his close-range shot was somehow saved by Iker Casillas, but it was one of the few occasions that the Spanish goalkeeper was troubled.

Talk of Bayern's demise is wildly inaccurate.

Just one goal down with a home leg to come, they remain very much in contention.

But there are times when Guardiola might allow himself to compromise his ideals for a short-term gain.

It is admirable indeed to journey to the Bernabeu and attempt to dictate terms from the first whistle, but a more cautious approach might have paid dividends.

As it was, Bayern were fortunate to escape with just a single-goal deficit.

The tie, nonetheless, is still very much on.

This article was published on April 25 in The New Paper.

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