The semi-final stages of the UEFA Champions League are typically tight, tense affairs. Especially the first-leg of the ties, where neither team wants to give an inch; after coming so far, it’s understandable that the modus operandi for managers at this stage is “must not lose” opposed to “must win.”
So as we geared up for the two first-legs of the respective semi-finals this week, I had an inkling that goals may come at something of a premium, and that proved to be the case in some very even ties.
In the first game, Chelsea got out of the Vicente Calderon with a 0-0 draw against Atletico Madrid. Jose Mourinho fielded an extremely defensive side, and Diego Simeone’s La Liga leaders didn’t have the guile or the patience to penetrate the wall of black shirts. The result was a dour game that certainly won’t burn brightly in the vault of Champions League classics.
The second semi-final was a far more enterprising affair, with Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid taking on Bayern Munich. Los Blancos surrendered possession to the holders, drawing their opponents onto them before springing forward on the break. Ultimately, that’s how Real managed to nick the solitary goal, with Karim Benzema finishing off a fine counter-attack.
Both ties must produce a winner next week as the teams do battle again, so here we take a look at what we’ve learnt about each team ahead those vital second-leg, semi-final ties:
Atletico Show First Signs Of Champions League Naivety
Before a backdrop of raucous supporters at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, Atletico Madrid were unable to breach the assembled ranks of the Chelsea defenders.
They played with the fight, aggression and purpose that has come to sum up their wonderful campaign so far, but they also showcased a smattering of naivety over the 90 minutes. Naivety that is to be expected when playing in this stage of the competition for the first time in many, many years.
Simeone’s side were afforded the ball by their opponents, and roared on by the home crowd, tried to attack Mourinho’s men with relentless, direct intent. But by doing so, they played straight into Chelsea’s hands.
Atletico didn’t showcase the ingenuity or the patience of a seasoned Champions League veteran. They shot wildly from distance, they crossed aimlessly into the box from deep positions and their frustration got the better of them, as Mourinho’s men did their best to take the sting out of the game.
They still have a chance in this tie, but it’ll take a performance rife with maturity and ruthlessness if they are to progress to the final.
Chelsea Have An European Aura Under Mourinho
From a very early stage in this game, you just felt as though Chelsea looked impenetrable. They had a robust, disciplined back four, energy in spades out wide and an authoritative defensive shield in the middle of the pitch.
It made for a turgid affair, but I’m sure the Chelsea supporters who traveled to Madrid weren’t complaining, as the stalemate at the Calderon makes them big favorites to progress in the second-leg.
In the quarter-final, Mourinho managed the second-leg superbly against Paris Saint-Germain, and you suspect he’ll have another astute game plan up his sleeve for the La Liga leaders. His team will be everything Atletico were not in their home leg; they’ll bide their time, stay composed and wait for the opportunities to fall their way.
The loss of Petr Cech and John Terry to injury, and Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel to suspension is certainly a blow, but Mourinho has already spoken of how the Champions League is his priority and he looks set to rotate his squad at Anfield on Sunday accordingly. So expect a strong and fresh team to take the field at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday.
In front of their own supporters, you’d be mad to back against Chelsea grinding out a result and making it to their second final in three seasons.
Pedestrian Bayern Need More Impetus
Possession, possession, possession but no penetration for Bayern Munich.
They dominated the ball in the Bernabeu, imposing themselves in the early stages and popped round in midfield with aplomb. But Real Madrid counter-attacked against them with vigor and incisiveness, and despite seeing just 25% of the ball, Los Blancos could’ve easily been 3-0 up at half-time. Luckily for Bayern it was only 1-0.
The fear of getting hit on the break combined with some sloppy passing mean Pep Guardiola’s troops looked a little toothless in the second-half. They’re clearly still a work in progress at the very top level, and they lack the direct threat that was a patent of their game under Jupp Heynckes.
When Thomas Muller entered the fray late on, his running in-behind and intelligent movement gave Bayern a much more pertinent attacking threat. They’ll need much more of that in the second-leg, a game in which they have to score if they’re to continue their defense of the title they won last year.
Expect Guardiola to draft in one of Muller or Mario Gotze for the second-leg. The aforementioned duo are prepared to drive forward and take risks in the final third, and that’ll add a different dimension to a midfield that looked a little laterally overbalanced in the Bernabeu.
If they can get an early goal in the second-leg, the Allianz Arena will be rocking. But the longer the game goes on, and the more Bayern push forward, the greater the threat Real Madrid pose on the counter.
Scintillating Counter-Attacking Can See Madrid Progress
Carlo Ancelotti got it tactically spot on against Bayern. His team sat deep, soaked up the Bayern Munich pressure and sprung forward in devastating fashion when they won the ball back. In truth, his side could have put this tie to bed had Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria brought their shooting boots.
You suspect the philosophy will be very much the same when they travel to Germany on Tuesday. The holders will need a goal, will need to come forward and as such will leave gaps for the likes of Ronaldo, Di Maria, Benzema and Gareth Bale to exploit.
They must be astute defensively, though. They were pulled from pillar to post by Borussia Dortmund on their last jaunt to Germany, and Bayern are a much more capable side than Die Borussien.
But keeping a clean sheet in the home leg was huge. You imagine with the attacking prowess this team possess that they are capable of snaffling a goal in Munich, which means the holders would have to score three.
I think they’ll nick a goal out in Germany and that should be enough to see them through. The Decima is inching ever closer for Ancelotti and his team.
Sitting Back The Best Way Forward?
The two teams that have had the best results in the semi-finals so far are those who have sat back and surrendered possession.
So often we hear that dominating the ball is vital, but is a shift in that kind of mentality imminent? For both Atletico and Bayern, it was so difficult to break down their opponents, who adopted defensive ploys from the off. Chelsea and Madrid, despite seeing much less of the ball, will be favorites going into the second-leg.
Is a cantenaccio-centric stylistic approach about to become the vogue tactic in soccer once again?