Champions League semi-finals: Ominous Bayern the team to beat
There was drama. There was controversy. There was the whiff of an upset. But, in the end, the biggest and best four teams have made it through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
At this immediate stage, there are two clear favourites: Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund can perhaps count their blessings that they’ve edged through to the last four. Dortmund, in particular, can be thankful to Lady Luck and a few of her match officials.
Madrid’s tie with Galatasaray turned into a thriller which was some achievement given that Real were 3-0 up from the first leg and took the lead in the second.
Christiano Ronaldo’s 10th goal of the tournament mean the Turks had to score five and they certainly gave it their best shot. A brilliant 15-minute spell that contain super goals from Emmanuel Eboue, Wesley Sneijder and a touch of genius from Didier Drogba got the home fans dreaming of doing the impossible. But another from Ronaldo in stoppage time, belatedly killed off Gala and booked Jose Mourinho’s side into a record 24th semi-final. The 5-3 aggregate scoreline warped the true distance between the sides. Real, even in Istanbul, always looked to have enough quality even if they let their mental diligence dip.
Ronaldo himself summed it up succinctly afterwards when he said: “You learn from your mistakes; the team always give their best but from time to time we make mistakes – this can happen...the most important thing is that Real Madrid are in the semi-finals.”
Bayern Munich have purred their way into the last four in typically ominous fashion. On paper their quarter-final against Juventus appeared difficult to predict but the way they emphatically swatted aside Antonio Conte’s team in both legs has them as the team to beat.
Bayern came into the second leg fresh from sealing the Bundesliga title (with half a dozen games to go) and their 2-nil win at home was followed by the same scoreline in Turin to capped an outstanding eight days.
With the title now won, Jupp Heynckes can fully focus on becoming champions of Europe and avenging their defeat in the final to Chelsea last season. The fact that he can now rest key players in the build up to the semi-finals only adds to their power. Midfielder Thomas Muller admits the side are very high on confidence: “If you win 2-0 in Turin then it must mean you've not done much wrong. We knew that Juventus are a good team but we had lots of confidence because we know how much quality we have.”
Bayern will fear no one in the last four and you can understand why. Even without Mario Mandzukic, who’ll miss the first leg of the semi-final through suspension, they will be the side everyone wants to avoid.
Barcelona remain a worry. Despite reaching a record sixth-straight semi-final, they were far from impressive in overcoming a spirited Paris Saint Germain on away goals. Barca were 20 minute from going out when they trailed 1-0 in the second leg and 3-2 on aggregate before Pedro’s goal proved enough. Once again they were indebted to Lionel Messi. This time a half-fit one. The Argentine started the game on the bench after just about recovering in time from the hamstring pull he sustained in the first leg in Paris and his introduction on the hour proved the much-need catalyst for Barca.
As good as he is, Messi cannot compensate for Barca’s vulnerability at the back and it remains palpable they cannot really hope to win the Champions League without him. They will have to hope he suffers no more twangs otherwise they can, on current form, forget an unprecedented third win at Wembley.
Barca’s second-leg saviour Pedro knows they have to improve: “The semi-final draw is a difficult one. They are three tough opponents with great footballers. We'll have a tough tie whoever the draw gives us.” You get the sense Bayern and their La Liga rivals Real would prove too tough. Camp Nou factor or no Camp Nou factor; Messi fit or not.
Of all the semi-finalists, Borussia Dortmund will feel most like they’ve found someone else’s invitation and gatecrashed the party. They looked dead and buried in their second leg at home to outsiders Malaga when they trailed 2-1 in injury time, needing to score twice to save themselves. But, unbelievably, score twice they did.
They couldn’t have pulled it off without a little luck, though, as Felipe Santana’s dramatic winner was poked in from a seemingly offside position. Malaga felt robbed. You could understand why.
Perversely, perhaps, the very nature of their progression enhances Dortmund’s chances on becoming champions. Maybe, as my colleague Hyder Jawad has speculated in these pages, destiny is ushering the Germans towards Wembley and glory in May?
They will hope that Malaga was a mere blip on their otherwise serene progress thus far. Dortmund remain the only unbeaten side left in the competition. The last team to win the Champions League with an unblemished record was Manchester United in 1999. The last team to score twice in injury time to win a Champions League game was also Manchester United. In the 1999 final against Bayern Munich. Dortmund might just sense a repeat.