As Diego Simeone takes Atletico Madrid to a second Champions League final in three seasons, Pep Guardiola exits Bayern without having reached one, writes Ben Lyttleton.
At Bayern Munich, they will be some who may now say that the Pep Guardiola experiment did not work out after all. At a club where results trump performances, a third straight failure in the Champions League semifinals falls short of the expectations when his appointment was announced midway through a season in which Bayern would go on to win the treble.
As in the previous two seasons, it was a Spanish side that knocked it out; after Real Madrid and Barcelona, you can add Atletico Madrid to the list. The first two went on to win the trophy. In the last two rounds, Atletico has now beaten Barcelona and Bayern Munich, so it deserves its place in Milan.
Bayern ended up winning 2-1 on the night, but it was not enough as Atletico progresses via away-goal tiebreaker after a 2-2 aggregate draw. Antoine Griezmann scored the crucial goal on either side of efforts from Xabi Alonso and Robert Lewandowski. But that barely does justice to a breathless match that was notable for chances at both ends and two missed penalties.
Guardiola may be left wondering how things might have panned out had the key moment of the first half gone his way. It came just three minutes after Jose Gimenez had deflected Alonso’s free kick from a central area past Jan Oblak to put Bayern ahead (and even on aggregate).
From a corner shortly after, Gimenez was penalized for grabbing Javi Martinez around the waist and Bayern had a penalty. This was the moment for Thomas Muller, recalled to the starting line-up after his surprise omission from the first leg. Muller time. This was what the Raumdeuter, ‘the space interpreter’ would have wanted. He had admitted his frustration at missing out last week, and this was his opportunity.
He had had one half-chance earlier in the game, receiving Jerome Boateng’s superb throughball on the penalty spot. Instead of taking it down and shooting on the turn, he laid it off first-time to Lewandowski, but his angle was too tight. Any decision Muller made that did not come off left you wondering if he was trying too hard. Would this have happened had he played last week?
Then came the penalty. Muller had to wait at least one minute because Franck Ribery was scuffling with an Atletico opponent. Once that settled down–and an extra wait is never good for a nervous penalty-taker–Muller ran toward the ball with his eyes on Oblak. As he neared the ball, he slowed down, waiting for the goalkeeper to move first. He didn’t, and Muller’s shot was too central and at a comfortable height for the keeper to save. Muller let out an agonizing scream of frustration: he has now taken 11 spot kicks this season, and he has missed four of them.
For Guardiola too, this was history repeating: in the 2012 Champions League semifinal, Lionel Messi missed a spot kick against Chelsea, who went on to win the game (and the final).
There were more twists in a dramatic second half, which began with Koke, Torres and Griezmann exchanging passes on the counterattack before the Frenchman raced clear to score smartly in a one-on-one against Manuel Neuer. At that point, Bayern needed two more goals, and with Atletico in full-on defensive mode, it looked like a tough ask.
But Bayern had been here before. It beat Juventus in the round of 16 after a 92nd-minute equalizer from Muller and extra-time goals from Thiago and Kingsley Coman. So it pushed forward, and reduced the deficit when David Alaba’s long-ball was headed back across goal by Arturo Vidal for Lewandowski to head home from close range.
That left 15 minutes for Bayern to break down Europe’s most dogged defense to make the final.
It was Atletico that came closest to scoring, when Martinez was wrongly adjudged to have fouled Torres in the area. Torres took the penalty but it was saved by Neuer, almost identical to how Oblak kept out Muller's spot kick, prolonging the drama and increasing the edginess. Things reached the point where Diego Simeone hit his own staff member in stoppage time, when he appeared to merely be asking which player he wanted to substitute out of the match.
In the first leg, Bayern had 71% possession without scoring. In the second leg, it was 72%. Those numbers don't bother Atletico, and when the final whistle blew, the catharsis of emotion was felt from Munich to Madrid.
“We have a demanding preseason, which is essential for us to keep our fitness all season,” Koke, its outstanding midfielder, told So Foot. “We have our motivation, our solidarity as a team, the fact we want to win every game, to play every game like it's a final, that brings us success. Playing for this team teaches you values like humility and sacrifice more than the tactical aspect, which also remains important. But the key word is the intensity. It really teaches you to give everything, to be humble and to never see yourself as superior.”
But it is superior. Guardiola will leave Bayern without reaching a European final, while his counterpart, Simeone, takes his team to a second final in three years.
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