Champions League Semifinal Preview

by Karthik Sastry

It’s amazing how quickly the world football landscape can change. On April 9, at the end of 90 minutes in a tense second leg at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, it appeared an un-fancied Malaga side might secure a place in a triple-Spanish semifinal at the expense of the impressive but wasteful hosts. The headlines could have written themselves: could it be that the Spanish footballing hegemony, so clear in international competition, was inescapable at the club level as well? Two dramatic stoppage-time goals for the home side, however, halted that narrative before it got off the ground. Less than three weeks later, after a tantalizing draw pitted Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the top two German sides of the past several years, against Spanish titans Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively in the ultimate competition for club-level supremacy, the Bundesliga representatives emphatically responded with 4-0 and 4-1 victories. Now it is the Germans who are making the more convincing claim to represent the strongest footballing nation in Europe as a Bayern-Dortmund final looms.

Perhaps this interpretation is somewhat presumptuous as both Barcelona and Madrid have incredibly strong home records, neither having lost a game on their home ground in either La Liga or European play this year (more precisely Barca has drawn once in league play and twice in continental play, Madrid twice in each). They might also recall a history of great European comebacks by Spanish sides, including Deportivo La Coruna’s famously overcoming a 1-4 deficit to A.C. Milan at the San Siro, the largest deficit overcome in the Champions League era, and the Catalans’ own defeat of the Rossoneri after a 0-2 away loss in this year’s Round of 16. For the neutral fan, each second leg clash will feature a real possibility of an un-missable, historic reversal and, regardless of the outcomes, some extremely high quality play. Here’s a quick a preview of what to watch for in these week’s matches:

Bayern vs. Barcelona

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First leg recap: There was some pre-match anticipation that Bayern Munich, who lead the Bundesliga with an average 63.8% possession in matches, would attempt to beat Barcelona (who have, unsurprisingly, an even higher 69.2% figure in La Liga) at their own short-passing, ball-control game. Instead, the Bavarians happily conceded 66% possession to the visitors, only to play a devastating counter-attacking style that exposed all of the Catalans’ defensive frailties. On the break, the creative troika of Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben made chances for themselves and lone forward Mario Gomez. When Bayern did get their entire team forward, during their rare spells of long possession or set plays, three times they converted their aerial superiority, present in all areas of the pitch (having won 73% of headers), into goals. Barcelona had plenty of time on the ball, but, unsettled by the Bavarians’ physical approach, could offer no answer.

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Key to the second leg: Javi Martinez’s tackling. In the first leg, the physical midfielder, acquired from Basque club Athletic Bilbao for a reported  €40 million ($52 million) this past summer, was tasked with making life uncomfortable for Andres Iniesta and largely succeeded, preventing the Catalan maestro from controlling the match’s tempo alongside his partner Xavi Hernandez. Martinez actually did not have the most tackles in the match, an honor won by his own partner in the center of the pitch, Bastian Schweinsteiger, but the midfielder’s focus on disruption over all else was notable—he completed only 23 passes in the match, less than any starting outfield player on either side other than forward Mario Gomez (substituted off at 71’), but successfully made six tackles and committed six fouls (twice as many as any other player on the pitch). Very likely, Martinez was following specific instructions to shut down Iniesta from his manager Jupp Heynckes, as he averages only 2.7/1.7 domestically and 3.7/1.3 in Europe for those same statistics this year. If Barcelona finds its attacking rhythm at the Nou Camp, the team is perfectly capable of finding four goals against any side in the world; again, it will be up to Bayern’s Spaniard to impose himself in the middle of the pitch.

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Prediction: If Bayern played a physical, counter-attacking game at the Allianz, they will most certainly do the same to a greater extent at the Camp Nou. Barcelona’s thinly stretched defense will also be even frailer without suspended left-back Jordi Alba. That said, it is difficult to imagine that a fitter Lionel Messi, who termed the defeat in Munich “the low point in [his] career,” and his teammates will allow themselves to be humiliated equivalently at home. A low-scoring draw seems likely; a complete turnaround would require a miraculous, but not inconceivable, Messi performance.

Dortmund vs. Madrid

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First leg recap: Dortmund came out of the gates strong and found an early lead when Robert Lewandowski thumped home from Mario Gotze’s well-placed right-side cross. A poor back-pass by center-half Mats Hummels, which immediately led to a Ronaldo tap-in, seemed to let Los Blancos back into the match, but the Germans found another burst of quality at the beginning of the second half to open up a 4-1 lead, with all four goals ultimately coming from the imposing Lewandowski. Dortmund actually had only three more shots on target than the visitors (7-4) and a significantly smaller amount of possession (46%-54%), but succeeded in imposing their blisteringly quick tempo upon a Madrid side more interested in patient build-up play.

 

Key to the match: Mesut Ozil’s Movement. In Dortmund, Madrid manager Jose Mourinho somewhat surprisingly selected Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric in the same team. Perhaps the decision, which forced Ozil to move to a less comfortable position on the right flank, was motivated by the necessity of Angel Di Maria’s unavailability, but it also signaled an intent to play a calmer game with, essentially, four central midfielders. The strategy, however, was unsuccessful. Dortmund’s pressing prevented Madrid from finding its rhythm in the center of the pitch, and Ozil, though he did see enough of the ball to complete 47 passes, five more than his Champions League average, had a very small influence on proceedings from his wide position.

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For the second leg it appears that Sami Khedira, who played a full 90 minutes this weekend against cross-town rivals Atletico, will be dropped to the bench, allowing Ozil to move back to his favored central role. The German’s preferred move is to drift toward the flanks as a balance to teammates, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, who enjoy doing the opposite; the beauty of this strategy is that is immensely confusing for opposition holding midfielders and fullbacks, who must switch responsibilities lest they be dragged horribly out of position. In the first leg, Dortmund’s double-pivot of Ilkay Gundogan and Sven Bender were allowed to challenge Modric and Khedira directly relatively far up the pitch, and then subsequently make adventurous breaks forward (Gundogan actually had three successful dribbles in the match, one less than Marco Reus and equal with Ronaldo). Ozil, at his best, can unsettle Dortmund’s defensive midfield duo, creating space not only for himself but also Modric and Alonso behind him, freed from the constant pressure, and Ronaldo and Di Maria (potentially) on the wings.

Prediction: Mourinho stated his intent in the pre-match press conference to “try different players and a different system” in the second leg. If he can choose a side better equipped to play at a high kept tempo, then Los Blancos have a very strong chance to put goals on the board. That said, scoring three without conceding or winning by four or more otherwise is a tall task against a usually disciplined Dortmund defense. A reasonable outcome would be a one or two goal Madrid victory, insufficient to prevent the Germans from advancing.

All statistics taken from WhoScored.com

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