Crisis, what crisis? Bayern Munich shrugged off the pressure of a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Porto to reach the Champions League semifinal for a fourth straight season after a stunning 6-1 victory (7-4 on aggregate) in Germany. Barcelona is also in the final four, for an eighth time in the last 10 seasons, after dispatching Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 at Camp Nou to finish off a 5-1 aggregate triumph.
This is what caught our eye on another entertaining night in Europe’s elite competition:
Player of the Day: Thiago Alcantara, Bayern Munich
Thirteen months ago, Thiago damaged ligaments in his right knee against Hoffenheim. He missed Bayern’s end-of-season run-in, including the Champions League 4-0 loss at the hands of Real Madrid. He missed the World Cup, and, after a relapse at the start of this season, had his third operation last October.
Since his return, only five matches ago, he has proved decisive: in his first game back, a 20-minute cameo at Borussia Dortmund, he set up the winner for Robert Lewandowski. Three days later, he scored the fifth and winning penalty in Bayern’s shootout win over Bayer Leverkusen. Last week, he scored Bayern’s away goal in Porto.
Tuesday, he opened the Germans’ scoring with a powerful near-post header after nine minutes. That was just the start of it. He embodied all that was great at Bayern in a first half that ended 5-0. He was hungry for the ball, confident on it, always driving his team forward. His chest control and smart pass set up Thomas Muller’s deflected fourth goal, while his late burst towards the area forced Ivan Marcano’s rash lunge and second yellow card. Xabi Alonso scored from the ensuing free kick.
Guardiola sees Thiago’s partnership with Philipp Lahm in midfield as crucial to the way he wants Bayern to play. Both players find space between the lines, shift play from side to side and Thiago, in particular, has shown he can drift into the area at crucial moments. The Spaniard had been out for over a year and has been back in action for just 18 days. It looks like he was never gone. No wonder he got a standing ovation from the fans and a big hug from his coach after he was subbed off in the final minute.
Honorable mention also goes to Neymar, who scored two goals in Barcelona’s comfortable win over PSG. The Brazilian has now scored in all four matches against the French champion this season–two in the group stage, and the other in last week’s first leg–but even he will have been grateful to Andres Iniesta, who glided past the PSG midfield and split the defense with a sensational throughball for Neymar’s eighth-minute opener.
Neymar has now scored 30 goals this season. Messi has 46. The last time two Barcelona strikers both scored over 30 in one season? 2008-09, when Messi (38) and Samuel Eto’o (36) combined to help Barcelona win every trophy in sight.
Moment of the Day: Robert Lewandowski’s first goal
Some goals just get better the more you watch them. Lewandowski’s first, Bayern’s third, fits into that category–and it was the only one the host scored, arguably, that Porto could have done nothing about. There looked there would be little coming when Lahm chased the ball as it headed out of play down the right flank. But then Bayern did what it does best.
Lahm's sweetly struck cross found Muller in space on the corner of the area, and the German cushion-volleyed the ball toward the center, where Lewandowski dived to head the ball home. It was the kind of goal that a generation brought up on the game ‘headers and volleys’–when two or three players are only allowed to head or volley efforts on goal, because they look better–would appreciate, partly because they are so rarely seen in the professional game.
The beauty was even greater as it was the culmination of a 27-pass move.
Lewandowski could have scored even earlier, but his ninth-minute shot came back off the post. His second goal, Bayern’s fifth, was vintage "Lewy." After Muller won the ball, in the opposition's area, he cut it back and it looked like there was not room for the Polish international to find space for a shot. One touch, though, and he found room. Another touch, and he scored.
"Lewandowski is a much more intelligent forward, which is the way Guardiola changes his players,” Gazeta Wyborcza journalist Michal Zachodny told me recently. “He was a counter-attacking forward able to run onto ball, dribble or play others into space, but now he has better understanding of space, of the importance of making space for others, of constant movement and playing one-touch football.”
He still knows where the goal is though.
Takeaway of the Day: Pressure off Pep, back on Blanc
One challenge facing modern football coaches, Arsene Wenger said earlier this season, is just how much new (i.e. social) media increases the pressure after every defeat. In the ‘old days,’ a fan might watch his team lose, go home and moan to his friends about it the next day, and by Monday it was forgotten. These days, he would voice his complaints on social media, find people to agree, their thoughts build momentum and the noise builds and builds. Guardiola might have understood that in the last week.
Following the resignation of Bayern doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt and his medical team after the Porto defeat, Guardiola’s halo seemed to be slipping. It did not seem to matter that one of the issues between the two men was that Guardiola actually wanted Muller-Wohlfahrt around the club more often, not less, than he was. Nor that Bayern would still dearly love Guardiola to extend his contract, which has one year to run, whatever had happened in this tie.
No team has perfect results on the way to success in this competition: last season, Real Madrid was hanging on against Dortmund after losing the quarterfinal second leg 2-0, while in 2012, Bayern lost 1-0 to FC Basel in the round of 16 first leg, and won the return 7-0. It was not quite a perfect night for Guardiola: Jackson Martinez scored a consolation and came close to a second late on. And he ripped his suit pants down the side after jumping out of his dugout.
For Paris Saint-Germain, it’s a different story. Laurent Blanc could do no wrong after his 10-man side beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the last round. The French media were insisting that he must stay in charge for next season: after all, PSG is tied atop Ligue 1, has won the League Cup and is in the French Cup final. It’s on course for an unprecedented domestic treble.
The manner of last week’s defeat to Barcelona–without Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and with Thiago Silva going off injured and a half-fit David Luiz replacing him–was understandable, but after this loss, the same questions will be asked. Is Blanc too cautious? Were his tactics wrong again? Does the squad have enough depth to cope at this stage of the competition? The availability of Jurgen Klopp on the job-market could see a discomforting summer for the French coach.
How Barcelona, Bayern shape up for the semis
The league leaders in Spain and the champions-elect in Germany: these two sides will be favorites to reach the final if they avoid each other in the semifinal draw. And of course it would be the final that all neutrals want: Guardiola against his former side, which is coached by his former teammate, Luis Enrique.
An additional twist is that both Bayern and Barcelona are on course for a domestic double–as is Juventus, which is in action Wednesday. The treble has only been done six times in history: three times this century, by Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2009, Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010 and Jupp Heynckes's Bayern in 2013. If Guardiola managed it again, he might be able to afford a new suit.