The Quarter Final first leg draw in the UEFA Champions League threw up some of the most exciting contests of this season; Bayern Munich taking on Juventus at the Allianz Arena whereas the clash between Malaga and Borussia Dortmund was billed as an exciting tug-of-war between two different yet exciting philosophies. Spanish behemoths Real Madrid and Barcelona were in action too, respectively taking on Galatasaray and PSG. We analyse the tactics and talking points from this entertaining round of fixtures.
Bayern Put Juventus To The Sword
The UEFA Champions League, that biggest of stages, has a habit of throwing the conventional out the window. As Germany’s champions-elect Bayern Munich celebrated a deserved and remarkable victory over Juventus, a great many football experts and pundits around the world would have been scratching their heads. This was surely unexpected, although it did manage to come as a pleasant surprise to the neutral observer. Before the clash, there had been talk of Germany’s Italian curse; the former were doomed to suffer at the hands of the latter till the end of eternity. Bayern’s previous triumph over Juventus had after all been at a time when the Bianconeri were not going through the most glorious of times and surely Juventus would now set the world order right with this fixture and announce the return of Italian Club Football on the grand stage.
Sadly, that did not happen for the Italians and the Germans proved good value for their money. And although Juventus might yet manage to do it, the tie surely isn’t over, but it is hard to imagine at this instance what they are going to come up with. Juventus were thoroughly outclassed by Bayern throughout the length and breadth of the pitch, for almost the entirety of the game.
Jupp Heynckes deserves all the accolades for getting it tactically spot-on over his Italia counterpart Antonio Conte. Bayern nicked the game from Juventus in two aspects of the game; high pressing and a relentless midfield. Bayern did not press especially high, as Barcelona have successfully done in recent years; instead they used their forward line as a secondary midfield to hound the ball off Juventus’s trio of Pirlo, Vidal and Marchisio. It is indeed a strange day when you witness the likes of Arjen Robben winning the ball of Andrea Pirlo, but that is precisely what Bayern pulled off and spectacularly at that.
Not just the duo of Schweinsteiger and Gustavo, who were brilliant throughout and pre-assisted a goal each, but Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery ad Mario Mandzukic worked tirelessly in tracking back to help out their midfielders and full backs, ensuring that Juventus gave the ball away more times than they would probably do in an entire Serie A season. The former Milan maestro could not control the game as he usually does, while Vidal was forced to go deep to retrieve the ball several times, rendering him largely ineffective. Marchisio performed the perfect disappearing act, joined under the invisibility cloak by Matri and Vucinic, in complete contrast to the likes of Mandzukic and Muller. Juventus just could not provide the service to their forwards.
In attack, Franck Ribery was the outstanding player on the night. The Frenchman was close to unstoppable and the famed Italian defence was more than often ran ragged by the duo of Robbery. Robben was wasteful at times but played in great sync with his French teammate and Juventus’s defence found it very hard to cope with the two, often assisted by Bayern captain Philip Lahm. And Ribery would be the man of the match if not for Mandzukic, who by sheer virtue of his hard work on the night and the grit to stand up to duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Barzagli, took the game to Juventus. He held up the ball brilliantly against a brazen defence, was always winning tackles in the midfield and provided a cool-headed assist to Muller for the all important second goal. He was subbed off to a standing ovation.
At the end of the game, Schweinsteiger exchanged shirts with Pirlo, and the Italian genius who has won everything in the game would have realized that the German bettered him this time. Antonio Conte would have been dejected, while Heynckes, a Bayern legend who does not always get the credit he deserves, would have celebrated pulling off a masterclass over a much fancied Juventus side. Deep into the night, somewhere, Helenio Herrera would have turned in his grave seeing an Italian defence being put to the sword like this. But seeing as it was Juve, he might not have minded it that much.
Real Madrid and Barcelona: Contrasting fortunes since 2011
The Semi Final first leg clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu in the UEFA Champions League had ended in a lot of bad blood. But as the dust settled, there was place for only the victor. Barcelona were hailed as one of the greatest teams of all times, perhaps the greatest ever. Real Madrid settled for the Copa Del Rey. Since then, Los Blancos have completed the cycle of winning and surrendering the crown of La Liga back to Barcelona, but there is a marked difference between the two. Real Madrid have greatly improved as a unit since while Barcelona are nowhere near the team they were back then.
The difference was all too clear in their respective Quarter final first leg fixtures. Real Madrid cruised to a 3-0 victory over Galatasaray while Barcelona huffed and puffed to a 2-2 draw at PSG, although the latter was surely a more dramatic affair. Even though, on paper atleast, PSG appear to be a better team than Galatasaray and the former were enjoying home advantage as well, but there was a clear difference in how the two went about their task. Real Madrid were in cruise control almost throughout the match and hardly gave Galatasaray a sniff of the goal, whereas Barcelona had to struggle to impose their game at Parc Des Princes. The duo of Matuidi and Pastore, alongside Beckham ran the midfield well against Xavi and Iniesta. Thiago Silva was immense for PSG and rallied the defence; Messi hardly had had a sniff goal till he popped up to give Barcelona the lead.
The Catalans dramatically overturned the 2-0 deficit against Milan in the last round but if there was a false alarm, it was then. For all the quality in the ranks, Barcelona are nowhere close to the team that lifted the Champions League in 2011 or even the team that went out in the Semi-finals last year. The continued absence of Eric Abidal and Puyol’s gradual decline has left them leaking goals left and right and the famed ‘Plan A’ isn’t that effective anymore.
Appearances aren’t deceiving here. Real Madrid had an inconsistent season but they have picked themselves up right towards the business end while Barcelona’s frailties continue to be demonstrated at every turn. The Catalans will walk away with the league this season, but Real Madrid are gradually becoming the better team. They already look like the machine they were last season under Jose Mourinho.