I still make Bayern Munich the favourites to win the Champions League — and become the first club to do so two years in a row — despite not being at their fluent best over two legs against Man United. After the first leg at Old Trafford, I was fearful for David Moyes’ men as they travelled to the Allianz Arena needing a score draw to progress.
I quite liked the team they chose, with Kagawa playing just off Wayne Rooney and pace either side in Welbeck and Valencia. Kagawa is a player I really admire but when everybody is fit, he doesn’t get his preferred role and tends to be pushed out wide, where he simply isn’t as effective out there. With him, Mata and Rooney all preferring the central role, it’s fairly obvious that three into one won’t go.
The pace of Welbeck and Valencia is vital when you know the opposition are going to have the majority of possession. You need players who can counter-attack quickly. Too often this season United have played without the pace on the wings and have counted the cost in poor performances and even worse results. I also think this is a huge reason why Arsenal are struggling as, without Theo Walcott, their play is a little one-dimensional, with too many ‘nice’ technical players content to keep the ball and not trying to hurt the opposition.
United shaped up well at the start in Munich but Bayern had too many quality players to try and nullify for 90 minutes. We always hear pundits talking about the ‘big’ players needing to affect the ‘big’ games and, in recent seasons, Arjen Robben has more than lived up to the billing. He supplied the cross for Thomas Muller to poke home and found the bottom corner, albeit with a deflection off Nemanja Vidic.
The other problem for opposition teams is that if you keep Robben quiet, the amount of attention he requires inevitably leaves Ribery, Gotze, Schweinsteiger, Mandzukic or Muller open. And it’s essentially because of that sheer depth of talent in their ranks, that I believe Bayern will be hard to stop.
True, Real Madrid have got better as the season has gone on, and in Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema they have the most explosive front line in world football. They also have undoubted quality behind them in Alonso and Modric. But my concern is the volatility of Real’s defence. Both Sergio Ramos and Pepe always seem to be within a whisker of getting sent off every time I see them play, especially in the big games, and they can be liabilities. You only have to look at the recent game against Barca in La Liga when Ramos was sent off — admittedly harshly — for the 19th time in his career.
While I expect Bayern to have too much for Real, my feeling is that the force — in the shape of Jose Mourinho — will be with the Chelsea in the other semi-final, as England’s sole remaining representatives take on the tournament’s surprise package, Atletico Madrid.
Mourinho masterminded another one of his famous comebacks on Tuesday when Chelsea got the 2-0 win they needed to overcome Paris Saint Germain at Stamford Bridge. There wasn’t actually a lot between the two teams in the first leg in Paris until the third goal for PSG. But Chelsea did just enough at the Bridge and, while it wasn’t pretty, do you really think Mourinho cares? He is a master tactician when it comes to these encounters and, even though Chelsea suffered the blow of losing the talismanic Eden Hazard early on, and didn’t get the crucial second goal until the 87th minute through one of the manager’s unfavoured strikers, Demba Ba, the result was always on the cards from the moment Andre Shurrle got them back in the tie.
I heard the news of the draw for the semi-finals from one of my Spanish team-mates at Brighton as I walked into the dressing room at the training ground yesterday and his immediate reaction was that the Chelsea/Atletico tie would be boring because both sides would be ultra-defensive.
I hope he’s wrong, especially since Atletico have been a breath of fresh air this season. They have now faced Barcelona on five occasions this season in both league and cup competitions and have drawn four and won one, so seeing them overcome Barca over two legs perhaps shouldn’t have surprised us too much. They are also unbeaten in the Champions League having scored 22 goals and conceded five. Interestingly, although they haven’t got great Champions League experience, they have taken the Europa League very seriously in recent seasons and it seems to be standing them in good stead.
Sadly, you can already see a similar situation unfolding at the club to that at Dortmund, with key Atletico players like Diego Costa, Koke and Courtois set to be cherry-picked by bigger clubs in the summer. But, for now, they’re in with a chance of making history and, even if I expect Chelsea to win. The presence in the semi-final line-up of a team which embodies the fighting spirit of its manager Diego Simeone will ensure an added layer of fascination.