Atletico Madrid stifled defending champion Barcelona, while Bayern Munich is back in the Champions League semifinals after handling Benfica. Jonathan Wilson on the day's Champions League action.
The holder of the Champions League crashed out on Wednesday as Barcelona lost 2-0 to Atletico Madrid to go out 3-2 on aggregate. Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side of 1990 will remain, for at least another year, the last side to defend the European crown. The 2013 champion, Bayern Munich, went through by the same aggregate, a 2-2 draw away to Benfica giving it a 3-2 victory.
On a sulphurous night at Estadio Vicente Calderon, two goals from Antoine Griezmann, the first a header and the second a penalty, took Atletico through, as Barcelona’s strangely subdued form continued. Barcelona didn’t play especially well, but should have had a late penalty for a handball by Gabi that took place just inside the box. That, though, was far from the only controversy.
By comparison, Bayern’s progress against a depleted Benfica was simple enough in the end, although there was an early shock as Raul Jimenez headed the home side into a 27th-minute lead. Arturo Vidal leveled 11 minutes later with a ferocious shot from the edge of the box, an away goal that effectively killed the tie. Thomas Muller handled the rest, diverting a Javi Martinez header in from close range seven minutes into the second half. Talisca did level it on the night with a superb free kick, but by then the quarterfinal was lost, as Benfica still needed to more to go through.
Bayern and Atletico Madrid join Manchester City and Real Madrid in a semifinal quartet that features a number of sizzling storylines.
Here's what stood out on the day:
Player of the day: Arturo Vidal, Bayern Munich
Bayern has not been anywhere near its best since the winter break, struggling to find the fluency that characterizes it at its best. For a side whose strength is the team ethic, the collective pressing and intelligent movement, it has become oddly reliant on individuals. Here, it was Philipp Lahm and Vidal who shone. After Benfica had taken a shock lead with what was virtually its first attack, Vidal, who had scored the only goal in the first leg, hit a vital equalizer.
Lahm was the creator, his driven cross being punched out by Ederson. The ball fell to Vidal just outside the box and he crashed a first time shot into an unguarded net, a moment of wonderful awareness and technical ability. That was one of four shots Vidal had in the first half, while his passing was excellent throughout. In a slightly flat performance, he offered Bayern drive and inspiration.
Moment of the day: Griezmann's opener for Atletico Madrid
That Atletico is solid defensively and will scrap for everything is never in doubt. The question really was whether it could score. It was helped though by shambolic defending from Barcelona. First Jord Alba needlessly presented Saul with possession on the right, then Gerard Pique mystifyingly didn’t drop back to help Dani Alves in the middle, instead taking up a weird no-man’s land position on the corner of the box.
The result was that when Saul crossed, Griezmann was unmarked to head past Marc-Andre ter-Stegen. The goal leveled the score on aggregate, but put Atletico ahead on away goals, allowing it to drop back and defend.
Major takeaway of the day: Barcelona is in a rut
The Barcelona blip is in danger of becoming a slump. It led 2-0 at halftime against Villarreal on March 20 and at that point seemed unstoppable. But Villarreal came back to draw 2-2 and, although that took Barcelona's unbeaten run to 39 matches, it was also the beginning of a run of three games without a win in La Liga as its lead has been cut from nine points to three. The first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal came amid that run and, although Barcelona won, it was a less than impressive performance in a game it probably wouldn’t have won but for Fernando Torres’s rashness and first-half red card.
Here, Barcelona was second-best for almost an hour, struggling for rhythm, seemingly unable to lift its tempo. Griezmann scored a fine opening goal, heading in Saul’s cross after Gerard Pique’s sloppiness left him unmarked. Barcelona’s defending was indifferent throughout, and Lucas Hernandez sent a looping header against the bar early in the second half.
Barcelona did create some pressure in the final half hour, but it was never a siege as the game degenerated into an ugly scrap, full of petty fouling, time-wasting, diving, pressuring the referee and histrionics.
Neither side came out of it particularly well: as Atletico spoiled, Barcelona became increasing petulant and Neymar could easily have been sent off for kicking out at Juanfran.
Atletico, having killed the game, won it, a late break leading to a handball in the box by Andres Iniesta. Griezmann’s penalty lacked power, and ter-Stegen got a hand to it, but the ball crept in. Gabi then escaped with his handball, as Atletico secured what over the two legs was probably a deserved victory.
Something is deeply wrong at Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are right on its heels in the race for La Liga, too.
Can Atletico Madrid or Bayern Munich lift the trophy?
After going so close in 2014, there is a chance for Atletico to wins its first Champions League, which would be a remarkable achievement in this era in which the elite has become self-perpetuating. From a defensive point of view, it is the best side left in the competition, while the return of the in-form Fernando Torres will add firepower. There is a cynicism of its play, but it is undeniably effective.
Pep Guardiola’s quest for the European success that would validate his three years at Bayern goes on. He may have taken Bayern into the tactical avant garde and may be on the verge of a third successive Bundesliga title, but it would mean far more with European success. Bayern has struggled to hit its heights since Christmas, though, as it is defensively vulnerable and lacking the certain pace of thought in the attack to turn possession into clear-cut chances.
Manuel Neuer, meanwhile, is an increasing concern. After his error-laden performance against Juventus in the last round, the Germany keeper was at fault again as Benfica took the lead after 27 minutes in Lisbon. Eliseu’s cross from the left was good, but Neuer’s positioning was bewildering as he charged from his line about three yards behind Raul Jimenez, who stole between David Alaba and Javi Martinez to head into an empty net. It was against the run of play and Bayern still came back quickly enough, but it was another indication of the defensive vulnerability Bayern demonstrated in the last round that could be a hindrance in the semifinals.