Champions League: Real Madrid strikes, holds firm in win over Bayern
Karim Benzema's first-half goal gave Real Madrid a 1-0 advantage after the first leg of its Champions League semifinal. This is what stood out on an anxious night at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu:
Man of the Match: Luka Modric, Real Madrid midfielder
Fabio Coentrao was excellent at left back, keeping Arjen Robben relatively quiet and getting forward well to link with Cristiano Ronaldo. Right back Daniel Carvajal dealt superbly with Franck Ribery, and Karim Benzema led the line with great intelligence, but for Real Madrid this was a victory rooted in defensive discipline. As ever Xabi Alonso was a mode of calm, sitting just in front of the back four, but the key for Madrid was Modric.
It seems extraordinary now watching him at 28 to think that when he arrived at Tottenham six years ago the fear was that he was too much of a No. 10 and would never be able to fulfill his defensive responsibilities. Against Bayern he was superb alongside Alonso -- first to the right and then, after Isco had gone off for Asier Illaramendi, to the left.
He filled the space, tracked his runners, doubled up on the wide man, and when he got the ball retained possession superbly. When a team is defending deep, when it yields three-quarters of possession, there is nothing worse than a player who squanders what possession it does have cheaply.
Modric, in a packed midfield, completed a remarkable 97 percent of the passes he attempted. They weren't just simple sideways balls either; he completed seven of eight long passes, more than anybody on the field but Sergio Ramos: he was a key in initiating the counter. Modric's display may have been understated, but in a defensive performance it was vital.
Moment of the Match: Ronaldo-to-Coentrao-to-Benzema
With 19 minutes played, Bayern had had a little more than 80 percent of possession, had taken up seeming permanent residence in the Real Madrid half and, as is its wont, was probing patiently away. The only clear chance it had created was a shot on the turn from Robben from just outside the box that had been deflected just wide, but the sense was that eventually, by process of attrition, the goal would come. When it arrived, though, it was at the other end.
As a Franck Ribery volley was blocked, Karin Benzema won possession. Real Madrid broke. Cristiano Ronaldo played a superb ball through for the overlapping left back Coentrao, who crossed low for Benzema, barely breaking his stride, to side-foot it in. At that point, Real had completed 35 passes to Bayern's 167.
This was what Bayern must have feared. However much it has controlled possession in every game it has played this season, against better sides it has looked susceptible on the break. If Manchester United's Danny Welbeck could unsettle its high line, it was hardly a surprise that Ronaldo and Benzema could.
Seven minutes later, Benzema broke into that same space behind Rafinha and crossed for Ronaldo. This time Ronaldo fired a bouncing ball over but the pattern was clear: however much Bayern dominated the ball, it was vulnerable to runs behind Rafinha.
How the Second Leg Shapes Up
Bayern is a paradox. One the one hand it is as tactically versatile as any side in Europe, with Guardiola forever tinkering and micromanaging, probing for an advantage or to plug a perceived flaw. And yet there is something of the stern abbot about Guardiola as he stands on the touchline, shaven head slightly bowed, constantly repositioning his side: in whatever distribution they end up, though, they remain his monks: ascetically disposed to the retention of possession.
Real may not know exactly what shape Bayern will take up in the second leg, but they know it will be facing a team that expects 70 percent of possession as standard and one that is vulnerable on the counter.
Its approach will thus be the similar to the first leg: sit deep, absorb pressure and spring forward on the break when it can. In fact, assuming Gareth Bale is recovered from the flu that consigned him to the bench on Wednesday, it's likely to be even more potent on the counter, with a muscular, skilful and frighteningly quick player on either flank, linked by the intelligence and movement of Benzema.
The prospects of a Real away goal feel high, and that could be critical.
For Bayern, there were two major disappointments. The first, and the easiest to resolve, was at right back, when Rafinha never got to grips with the twin threat of Ronaldo and Coentrao. It would be no surprise to see Philipp Lahm deployed there in his stead, with his place in central midfield taken either by Javi Martinez -- as happened in the final 25 minutes - or by Toni Kroos, with Mario Goetze or Thomas Muller taking the place behind striker Mario Mandzukic.
Perhaps more troubling, though, was the inability of Ribery to impose himself on the game. Such threat as Bayern posed from wide came almost exclusively from Robben, with Carvajal dealing with him so comfortably that Guardiola had his wide men switch flanks repeatedly before eventually withdrawing Ribery altogether after 71 minutes. Perhaps it was just a bad night for the France international, and it would be a major surprise if he didn't start the second leg, but his lack of impact is a concern.