MUNICH — Bayern Munich qualified for the UEFA Champions League semifinals on Wednesday night with a storming 3-1 (4-2 on aggregate) win over Manchester United sparked by Arjen Robben. Setting up a goal and scoring the capper, the Dutchman was at the heart of a frenetic Bayern offense that finally put a pesky United side to the sword, and made good on manager Josep Guardiola’s guarantee that they would win the match.
For an hour, this match lacked the frission of last week’s affair, though none of the skill and grace. It seemed the sterility of the Allianz, a modern grey monolith, combined with the knowledge that all Bayern had to do was prevent United from scoring, would lead to a rather drab game. But then, almost on the stroke of the hour, a switch was flipped, and a remarkable ten-minute sprint began that would decide the match.
Even more remarkable, it was the underdogs who began it. Collecting a ball on a broken play, and with time and space on the near side, but outside the box, United’s Patrice Evra lashed a left-footed shot past keeper Manuel Neuer and into the top left corner of the Bayern net. The ball was struck with such force it nearly knocked the entire goal over — and the away fans erupted in such a manner that the upper tier looked like it might collapse. It was by far the goal of the night — and suddenly, it looked like Manchester United’s dreams might come true.
“It was a wake-up call because the first 10 minutes in the second half were a disaster – we were slow and were not there. You can’t do that in the Champions League,” said Robben. “After that we scored three goals.”
But great goals alone do not win games, and as he giveth, so Evra taketh away. Right off the kickoff, Mario Goetze found Franck Ribery out wide, he sent in a simple cross, and Mario Mandzukic dove to head the ball into the net. The man he beat — Evra. It was a let-up, pure and simple, and down to United still celebrating a goal rather than locking up the doors. This was too easy for the defending champions — and worse was to come.
Thomas Muller would effectively decide the game nine minutes later when he ran into the heart of the area to receive a cross from Robben — right through the legs of Evra — to tap home from close range. It was a textbook bit of attacking from Bayern, who had started to work Evra’s side with the overload, forcing the defending into increasing untenable positions.
Robben then added the insurance — and actually sent some of the jaded Bayern fans heading for the exits, if you can believe it — when he crafted a bit of space for himself after a loping run, cut inside, and fired in his shot off the leg of Nemanja Vidic. There was little David de Gea could do as it ruffled the far corner of his net.
“It’s bitterly disappointing,” said United’s Michael Carrick after the match. “We put ourselves in a great position after scoring the first goal. It was a big blow to concede again after 22 seconds… the second goal was the killer.”
And yet, for all the dominance Bayern had, this was by no means an assured victory for large spells. In fact, Bayern had the lion’s share of possession to be sure — probably about 500% of it, truth be told — but did remarkably little with it for almost an hour. Part of that was due to United’s superb organization, again deploying two solid banks to break the Bavarian waves; part of it was that once they got within 18 yards, Bayern dithered. Only Robben looked like he wanted to score, and as was the case last week, his touches were awry.
Playing a version of the old Arsenal W-M formation — a very old formation that indeed — Guardiola left two men back and told the rest to rush United’s net. That led to some dazzling play and a number of balls punted into the hanging nets behind the goal — but it also pushed their backs so far up as to become central midfielders. And that created constipation, early, not creativity. It also left some gaps for United to exploit. It was not until United tired — and to be candid, looked broken as a team — that the dazzling attacking power of the move really shone.
“These players have a lot of heart,” said Pep Guardiola. “It’s not easy, there’s a lot of pressure in our minds because we are defending this title. Everything is not enough. If you don’t win, ‘wow,’ it’s really difficult.”
It’s worth noting United had the ball in the net first here, and had that goal stood, we might be telling a very different story. Again playing the counter, Wayne Rooney fed Antonio Valencia at the far post for a tap-in just 16 minutes in, and the Arena howled in disbelief. But Valencia was offside, and when Daniel Warnmark’s flag went up, those boos turned into ironic cheers. Rooney also fluffed his lines badly in the 65th minute, when he spurned a gilt-edged chance set up by Danny Welbeck. From there, there was no way back.
In the end, Bayern marched on, just as they have done all season long. They await one of the Madrid sides or Chelsea in Friday’s draw, and no one will want to face them. The events of last week look like a blip rather than a sign of true weakness. Bayern are now the team to beat as we move on towards Lisbon.