Real Madrid will take a slim lead to Munich after a goal from Karim Benzema staked them to a 1-0 win over holders Bayern on Wednesday night in an enthralling encounter at the Santiago Bernabeu. It will not be all that Madrid hoped for, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale both ailing and far from 100%, it was perhaps the best they could have mustered against a swarming German side that bossed the game but came away with nothing to show for it. This tie is hardly over.
Showing the same fluid modified W-M formation that bedeviled Manchester United in Munich, Bayern initially put on a clinic, flooding Real back for a solid fifteen minutes. Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger looked crisp, with Bayern’s players rotating around two fulcrums and looking to overload the flanks, with Daniel Carvajal picked on in particular.
But as the minutes ticked off, it became apparent that Iker Casillas wasn’t being worked at all. While Franck Ribery and Toni Kroos had their efforts, there was always a body — usually Pepe’s — in front of him and the Real net. And that situation led to the breakthrough but not for the holders.
In the 19th minute, Kroos saw his shot ricocheted out off Pepe’s shin, well out to midfield where Cristiano Ronaldo was waiting to collect it. With a sublime piece of skill, he picked out his countryman Fabio Coentrao on the far flank, and the back served it up on a plate for Benzema, all alone at Manuel Neuer’s far post. It is true that Rafinha was badly out of position on the play — the right back has been Bayern’s weak link this season — but to suggest that had he been in the right place at the right time is to deny Ronaldo’s vision. With one simple sweep of the laces, he transformed what had looked like a rout at the hands of the holders into a brisk object lesson into the merit of possession football versus actually scoring goals: one gets you Arsenal, the other gets you trophies.
Real’s hot streak would continue throughout the half as they continued to break with pace and precision, exploiting Josep Guardiola’s decision to leave just two backs at home. In the 27th minute, Ronaldo should have doubled the advantage when he hooked his shot over the bar with only Neuer to beat. Luka Modric, who was arguably the best player on the field on Wednesday night, set the attempt up with a breathtaking bit of footwork around the halfway line, sending a teasing pass in for Benzema. Unfortunately, the Frenchman’s pass wasn’t nearly as accurate but Ronaldo should have done better.
The same was true for Angel di Maria just before the half, when he collected a looper from Isco all alone on the near flank. With the Bernabeu holding its breath, he took two steps and then promptly lashed the ball into the lower tier, again with but the keeper to beat.
The second half saw Bayern rotating less and pressing more, hoping to catch a quickly tiring Madrid out. But while Casillas was busier than he had been, it quickly became a stalemate. Ronaldo would test Neuer down low with twenty minutes left to play, and Mario Goetze had Bayern’s best chance when he forced a save off Casillas at point-blank range with seven minutes to play.
Aside from that, this was a game that felt diminished the longer it went on. Perhaps both sides were saving their power for the game to come — but it is more likely that the exertions of the first half left two teams struggling to keep up the same pace.
Both coaches will have plenty to ruminate on. Carlo Ancelotti will surely rue the fact that this tie might be well and away if not for two pieces of wayward shooting. Yet he will also have noted that without Pepe in the heart of his back four, Real suddenly became sloppier and less compact, something Goetze nearly made them pay dearly for.
“The game was more or less as I expected," Ancelotti admitted after the match. "We began a bit timid as we needed more intensity to pressure further up. A bit strange that we pressed really well at the end, but did not at the start. The first 15-20 mins were difficult but then the team played much better, above all in second half. We did not have the efficiency of the first half but we controlled the game better.”
Guardiola also must go back to the drawing board and figure out how to prise Real apart. While their danger comes off the counter, the fact that they were able to hold Bayern off the board for the first time in their last ten semifinal appearances is no mean feat.
“I am very proud of my team, we played very very well. It is not easy to come here to Bernabeu and play a semifinal," said Guardiola after Bayern’s defeat on Wednesday night. "We played with a lot of personality, had the ball for a long time. In the last passes, diagonal balls, we will need to improve in Munich. But I am very proud, I know how difficult it is to play here at Bernabeu."
One thing is clear: at the end of the game, the champions were the ones still charging hard, still breaking towards Real’s net. If this tie comes down to a test of wills and endurance, than Madrid are in trouble. But they hold the advantage and the lead as it stands.
“In football the quicker the ball goes up, the quicker it comes back," Guardiola added. "Madrid are the best team in the world on the counter. They are footballers, but also athletes. If you let them run, and game becomes stretched, it is a risk. We did not want that.”
And as it stands, Real Madrid have one foot in the finals in Lisbon.
Spain correspondent Dermot Corrigan contributed to this article.