Real Madrid came from behind to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 on Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal, making it favorite to reach the final for the fourth time in five seasons. It also keeps the club on course to become the first side since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win the competition for a third straight season.
Joshua Kimmich had put Bayern ahead after 28 minutes, but Marcelo leveled just before halftime. That was against the run of play, and Bayern continued to have the better of a tetchy, scrappy, low-quality encounter. But it was Madrid that found the winner, with halftime substitute Marco Asensio finishing well on the break after a dreadful mistake by Rafinha.
Real Madrid didn't require the heroics of Cristiano Ronaldo in this match, with the Portugal star's scoring streak ending at 12 games in all club competitions, and his Champions League scoring streak ending at 11. Despite Real Madrid taking a 12-11-2 edge in the all-time series, the victory marked a sixth straight in the repeated encounters between the two European giants.
Here are three thoughts on their first leg in Munich:
The two sides of Marcelo
The overriding theme of the Champions League this season has been that nobody can defend, and that trend repeated once again. There had been a thought that the key battle would be that between Bayern’s right winger Arjen Robben and Real Madrid left back Marcelo, but Robben was forced off in the seventh minute.
Perhaps Marcelo relaxed, but whatever the reason, he was badly at fault in the 28th minute as James Rodriguez played a through ball behind him. Marcelo was jogging back, seemingly unconcerned by Kimmich’s surge from fullback. Kimmich ran on and with Keylor Navas, who had had a miserable game in the second leg of the quarterfinal, anticipating a cross, he fired in at the near post.
That was against the run of play, but there then followed a series of Bayern chances, without the German champions ever really seeming to play especially well.
But Marcelo does excel as an attacking fullback. He had scored in the last 16 and in the quarterfinal and, just as the game seemed to be drifting away from Madrid, he struck two minutes before halftime, crashing a first-time shot into the bottom corner from just outside the box.
Again, though, there were major questions about the defending. As the ball was headed across from the right, Javi Martinez was indecisive, almost flinching away from the ball as Cristiano Ronaldo half-shaped for an overhead, allowing it to reach Marcelo. On the back end, Bayern’s keeper, Sven Ulreich, weirdly seemed to withdraw his hands as the shot flashed past him.
For Real Madrid, it truly was a case of the two sides of Marcelo showing themselves in Munich.
In truth, this was a low-quality encounter
After all the goals on Tuesday and in three of the four quarterfinals, this was a return to a more traditional form of Champions League football–and not a particularly good version of it. There was anxiety seen in poor touches and nervous passes. The quality, in truth, was not high, not helped by an unpleasant mix of niggling fouls, preposterous theatrics and general grouchiness, not to mention a Bayern bench that, following age-old club habit, saw medical emergency at every hint of physical contact.
The very first piece of action was bafflingly bad, with Dani Carvajal presenting Robert Lewandowski with the ball in his own box, only for the Polish striker to fire a cross that was too hard, too high and too far behind Thomas Muller for it to be converted. That set the tone for the night: a lot of overhit balls, some slow-motion defending from a Madrid side that seemed to be playing well below capacity and a strange lack of rhythm or fluency on either side.
Sure enough, it was a dismal mistake that handed Madrid the lead. Rafinha’s mystifyingly bad pass presented the ball to Asensio 10 yards inside his own half with a clear run on goal. He took the chance well, timing a one-two with Lucas Vazquez just right before thumping the ball past Ulreich, but the opportunity should never have been gifted to him.
Bayern had its chances, notably when Muller and Lewandowski got in each other’s way four yards out with the goal yawning but by the end it looked tired. Perhaps it’s too easy to see in every Bayern failing a reflection of just how easily it wins the Bundesliga each season, but its sloppiness–at both ends–and fatigue did suggest a side overused to getting its own way.
Both sides battle injury woes
One of the great strengths of Bayern this season has been its central defensive partnership of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, two players who not merely have complementary skill sets but have played together for the best part of two seasons. But that partnership was broken after 34 minutes as Boateng was forced off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. He, presumably, will not recover in time for next week’s second leg. Robben had already been forced off through injury, and Martinez later went off after suffering a blow to the head. With Manuel Neuer, Kingsley Coman, David Alaba and Arturo Vidal already out, there is significant strain on Bayern’s squad.
Madrid, though, also has a problem, albeit not as cumbersome. Carvajal also pulled up with a hamstring issue, which resulted in Lucas Vazquez playing at right back.
Those injuries will surely play a role in next week's second leg in Madrid, where Bayern will have to overcome more than just a deficit if it is to dethrone the current king of the competition.