Underdog rises in Champions League semis
Bayern Munich & Chelsea dent hopes of ‘El Clasico’ final in Europe
It was supposed to be a done deal. Barcelona and Real Madrid – the two best teams on the planet – on a Champions League final collision course.
Ever since the competition’s group stage matches began back in September, the general consensus was that, providing the Spanish giants avoided each other in the knockout phase, they would meet on May 19th at the Allianz Arena.
But, having navigated all previous steps, both sides have faltered early over the final hurdle towards the final.
Just days before the second ‘El Clasico’ meeting of the domestic season in Spain, Madrid found the going extremely tough in Germany as Bayern Munich took the advantage from their first leg encounter.
Recognised as the biggest threat to La Liga’s dominance this season, the German giants showed why not everybody had written off their chances, with the chance of a home final spurring on the boys from the Bundesliga.
Los Blancos appeared to hold the advantage at 1-1 in the closing stages though, with Franck Ribery’s opener cancelled out by German international Mesut Ozil. He tapped in from Cristiano Ronaldo’s pass.
However, prolific striker Mario Gomez was on hand to put the Bavarians in pole position, slotting home from close range on 90 minutes after great work from Philipp Lahm on the right.
The fact Jose Mourinho’s side notched an away goal means they are probably slight favourites going into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, but it would take a brave man to bet against Bayern scoring on their travels with so many attacking threats at their disposal.
With all that in mind, one can’t afford to write off Jupp Heynckes’ side for a single second. You can be sure that ‘the special one’ isn’t taking their visit to the Spanish capital lightly, and whilst they still might be a slight underdog, Bayern have shown that this tie is anything but over.
At this stage of the competition, the phrase generally associated with teams not expected to win is ‘to still be in the tie’ after the first 90 minutes.
And, much like Bayern, the last English representatives have given themselves a great chance to progress.
Chelsea survived something of an onslaught against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, but unlike Pep Guardiola’s side they took their chance, securing an improbable 1-0 win.
Roberto Di Matteo’s side defended resolutely, and when the Blaugrana broke through, they either fluffed their lines completely or hit the woodwork. Petr Cech also made a couple of saves, but they were routine for the Czech international stopper.
What the misses do mean is that the pressure will be on the current Champions League holders next week. Should Barca concede a goal to the Blues at the Camp Nou, they will need to score at least three to progress.
Whilst it’s possible that Chelsea could keep back-to-back clean sheets against Barcelona, the likelihood is extremely slim. That’s why not conceding at home was so important.
Many people are against the away goals rule, but it will prove to be the difference between victory and defeat in Catalonia for the travelling Chelsea side next week. I would bet good money that they must score to progress.
Di Matteo might see it differently after the heroic efforts from John Terry and Gary Cahill, but for all their fantastic work at the back, Barca should have scored two or three in west London.
Still the underdog, the Blues will hope they didn’t use up all their luck in the capital last night, as they’ll be likely to need some more of it on their travels next week.
That said, there was nothing lucky about the counter-attack that led to Didier Drogba’s goal. After pinching the ball in midfield, Frank Lampard found Ramires with plenty of space to run into, and his pass was perfect for the Ivorian to hit first time.
Overplay can be the Achilles heel for Barcelona. Their full-backs look to advance high down the pitch to add an additional attacking option, but on the rare occasions that the ball is lost in the midfield area, the opposition can spring a quick advance if the wide players are willing to ‘bomb on’.
Ramires did just that, and got his rewards with a vital assist.
That’s the policy Chelsea will need to apply in attack, and a classic away performance in Europe could just be the ticket to a Munich final.
Stranger things have happened.