Bayern overcomes Madrid at a cost
"The best don't always win," Fernando Torres said after Chelsea's dramatic 2-2 draw away to Barcelona. It's a soccer truism that becomes ever more pronounced at the highest of levels. It's why no one will begrudge Chelsea or Bayern their advancement to the May 19 final at the Allianz Arena, both second legs could have easily turned out very differently. It ultimately came down to missed penalties on Tuesday and Wednesday, a margin of error so small that it should stop us from making sweeping statements. The reasons for success were as complex and open to debate as those for failure.
Here are four observations about Real Madrid vs. Bayern and the Champions League final.
José Mourinho's success at Chelsea and Inter was essentially down to a neat trick: he made star-studded teams full of talented, highly-paid individuals play in a completely selfless, humble way.
Two seasons at the Bernabéu have seen a remarkable transformation, too. The Post-Galacticos of Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Özil have evolved into a fully functioning unit, a goal-scoring machine with great balance, a winning mentality and good team spirit. And yet, the two legs against Bayern also showed that Mourinho's approach can have its drawbacks. Özil, the key player, for example, seemed to play with a sense of inhibition; his brilliance was more subdued than helped by the tactical discipline that his coach demands. Karim Benzema, easily the best center forward in all of the four semifinal matches, too, had to cover a lot of ground in an attempt to join up with the rest of his often fairly deep side or when putting pressure on Bayern's center backs. There's nothing wrong with making talented players work hard for the team, of course, but too much hard work can negate the creative impulses and killer instinct of the truly great. Both Benzema and Özil could certainly have done with a better division of labor that would have helped them to concentrate on their main strengths.
The real problem, however, goes deeper than that. The collective approach only works if the whole team buy into it. Real Madrid's Mourinho, you sense, are not quite there yet, and perhaps they never will be. Ironically, Madrid's early goals on Wednesday seemed only to undermine its resolve to stick to its manager's principles. Cristiano Ronaldo started to indulge himself and Madrid lost its shape completely -- as did Bayern, before fatigue and nerves resulted in a tense stalemate.
Because of their proud history as the world's most glamorous club, the public will never accept a real blue collar approach, yet Mourinho is a manager who believes in minimizing error, not maximizing creativity. Can this tension ever be resolved? Wresting the league title back from Barcelona has made the side's split-personality look like a less acute problem but it will certainly continue to pose interesting questions for Mourinho in Europe. His Chelsea team, for all its physical force and excellent organization, always lacked a bit of finesse in the Champions League, but it's harder to figure out if this Madrid needs more or in fact less of a collective approach. In either case, rumors of dressing room discontent with his ways suggest that Mourinho's old, neat trick might simply not work nearly as well in the Spanish capital.
Arjen Robben could not help but gloat a bit after the final whistle but he wasn't so much concerned with the club that sent him packing in 2009 as with the criticism he received by the honorary president of his current one. Franz Beckenbauer had felt that Robben taking (and missing) his crunch penalty in the championship decider at Dortmund two weeks ago had violated an ancient law of German soccer -- "the player who was brought down to win the penalty should not shoot himself." In truth, no one outside Germany knows about this strange superstition but Robben clearly felt that "the Kaiser" had insulted him. "I wonder what he'll say know," said the Dutchman on Wednesday with a barely concealed sneer. It would have been easy for Robben to pass up the opportunity to take Bayern's spot-kick in the first half in the light of his Dortmund miss and his inexplicable failure to connect with a David Alaba cross at point range just before. But the 28-year-old winger found the courage to face the man he couldn't beat in the 2010 World Cup final and (just about) converted from 12 yards to put Bayern back in business. His big-game mentality should no longer be questioned.
Manuel Neuer, a man used to penalty-kicks heroics from earlier exploits with Schalke, on the other hand, could always be expected to relish the opportunity to pit his wits against the Madrid sharpshooters. Him coming to Bayern's rescue wasn't a surprise as such, more of a vindication. When Karl-Heinz Rummenigge let slip that Madrid president Florentino Perez had congratulated him on having the "world's best keeper," it was also meant as a sly dig to a section of Bayern ultra fans who had loudly opposed the arrival of a man they identified as dyed-in-the-wool blue. Those fans will now have to eat a lot of humble pie and might be forced to reconsider if an equally impressive performance from Germany's national keeper helps Bayern win the trophy in the Allianz Arena.
John Terry's leadership qualities will surely be missed in Munich, along with Branislav Ivanovic's defensive expertise, Ramires' running and Raul Meireles' versatility. But a look at the respective squads suggest that Chelsea might actually cope better, a return to fitness by defensive stalwarts David Luiz and Gary Cahill permitting. In Florent Malouda, Oriol Romeu, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien, the Blues have plenty of options to replace Ramires and Meireles both of whom have not always been automatic starters this season. Bayern, however, are stretched. 19-year-old David Alaba, who only started excelling on the left from March onward, can be replaced by Rafinha or Diego Contento, with Philipp Lahm switching to the left. But what about center back Holger Badstuber and midfielder Luiz Gustavo? The Brazilian, whose ball-winning presence was a key factor against Madrid, has a natural deputy in Anatoliy Tymoshchuk but the Ukraine midfielder will in turn be needed to help out as a makeshift center back unless Belgian defender Daniel Van Buyten recovers from his metatarsal injury. No "Tymo" in midfield will result in Toni Kroos dropping deep and Thomas Müller coming in but Bayern have less defensive protection, less possession and less balance in that particular configuration. Frank Lampard will relish the space that will open in front of him, and the Bavarian's lack of depth in the squad could really come back to haunt them.
Bayern will start the match as slight favorites but two semifinals have shown that a (small) difference in skill can be overcome by determination and sweat. It's likely to be another tense, edgy affair, with both teams possibly fatiguing toward the end. If the game is indeed still close in its final stages, Chelsea have the perfect weapon in reserve: just like he did in Barcelona, Fernando Torres can come on to stretch the opposition's tired legs. Bayern hasn't got a substitute that can have a similar game-changing impact and its makeshift defense will also struggle to deal with the physical power of Didier Drogba. Borussia's Polish striker Robert Lewandowski has only recently shown how vulnerable Bayern is to muscular holdup play by a lone forward. Drogba, unplayable on his day, can grind down the back four and prepare the ground for a Torres super-sub finish that could be every bit as dramatic (and traumatic) as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's one in 1999.