The best laid schemes oft go awry ...
The rest of the line is "and leave us with nothing but grief and pain." That might summarize the entire match, but I mean it primarily for the surprising lineup Pep Guardiola fielded against a stubborn Atletico side today in the Calderon. Pep did the unthinkable, benching both Franck Ribery and Thomas Müller. Ribery's absence allowed Guardiola to pair Costa and Coman on the left and right wings, while Thomas Müller's absence allowed Guardiola to play both Arturo Vidal and Xabi Alonso simultaneously in the center with Thiago just ahead of them. While King Franck and Dougie Fresh may seem like an equal tradeoff, the lack of an additional threat up front from Bayern's beloved Raumdeuter may have cost Bayern dearly. The plan seems to have been to use Costa and Coman's pace to beat Atletico's fullbacks and deliver crosses to Lewandowski streaking up the middle. But those crosses almost never came: Atletico's compact defensive formation enabled them effectively to double-team both wingers every time they came anywhere near the ball. Between Costa and Coman, Coman had perhaps the better effort, but Felipe Luis and Koke still prevailed in shutting him down. That left Lewandowski starved of service for almost the entire match. He played harder on defense and attempting to create attacks all by himself than he did as a conventional striker.
A big part of Bayern's failure to deliver today was Thiago's struggles to do anything other than function as the team's "reset" button on offense. Thiago seemed to hit a wall today, constantly battling against Gabi and Niguez - often unsuccessfully - and more often than not passing the ball back to Alonso behind him or over to Lahm to start an attack anew. Thiago often seemed lost without a purpose on the pitch, since Bernat and Alaba usually fielded the ball forward to Costa and, later, Ribery on the left. That left Thiago with a midfield role that seemed to have no outlet, since Lewandowski was constantly covered in the center. It was not surprising, really, when he was replaced by Müller around the 70th minute. It was a change that Guardiola should have perhaps made earlier - or even before the match began, since Thiago's performance today is consistent with several mediocre showings, going back at least to his cap for Spain's international friendly against Italy, likewise a fierce defensive team.
You can't predict when lightning will strike
Bayern created several chances today, especially in the second half as Atletico seemed to tire slightly and allow them to play almost entirely in Atletico's half of the pitch, but Bayern's best shots today were "bolts from the blue" that narrowly missed. The most spectacular, obviously, was David Alaba's blast off the crossbar from some 35 yards out. That would have been an amazing goal - but also a highly improbable one. Douglas Costa's late-game strike, also from well outside the penalty box, might also have been a game-changer, but again it was a highly improbable shot. Where he spectacularly succeeded and was justly celebrated in Bayern's victory over Hertha Berlin, today he merely launched another desperate attempt to tie the game and steal an away-goal. Vidal likewise looked to recreate his blast up the middle. In Berlin, it took a lucky deflection and went in; today, it went nowhere. Bayern Munich have the individual quality to create such shots from time to time. They are extremely entertaining, and sometimes they win games, but the team cannot rely on them. What stood out to me most when our players resorted to long bombs was the fact that they just could not break through Atletico's defense and had partly given up on trying.
Benatia the secret weapon
Medhi Benatia entered the game in the 77th minute, ostensibly as a defensive reinforcement. The departure of Juan Bernat enabled Alaba to shift to left-back where he could collaborate more effectively with Ribery, while Benatia could hold down the back line alongside Javi for about fifteen minutes. That seemed obvious enough. Yet Benatia was also a wily offensive replacement that almost, almost delivered Bayern a coveted away-goal in the dying minutes of the game. In the 93rd minute, Benatia could be seen suddenly dashing forward up the middle of the pitch. What on earth was he up to? Atletico's defenders caught on too late, as a long pass flew his way for an attempted header. Atletico's goalie Jan Oblak stopped the shot, and Vidal's follow-up likewise sailed into the keeper's arms, but Benatia had effectively beaten Atletico's defense for a split second. Had he connected with the ball better we would be celebrating both an important 1-1 tie and Pep Guardiola's cunning.
No defense can stop sh... - I mean, soccer - from happening
Atletico carried the day today on the back of a goal scored by midfielder Saul Niguez in the eleventh minute. That goal made all the difference. How did it happen? The answer is not very satisfying, from Bayern's perspective. A good pass from Augusto Fernandez landed at Saul's feet in Bayern's territory just outside the midfield circle. Saul had Thiago right on his heels, but he dashed forward, leaving Thiago behind, helplessly poking at the ball. A tactical foul would have killed the play, but Thiago let Saul blow right by him. Saul then drifted forward and right, confronting Juan Bernat at left-back. Bernat closed to cut him off, but he also refrained from tackling, perhaps because he saw Alonso closing in from the center, to Saul's left. But all Alonso could muster was a late tackle when he realized Bernat was hesitating. Alonso missed and Saul blew by him as well. That left Saul one on one with David Alaba, who had dashed back to the center to cut him off. But Saul eluded Alaba with some deft footwork and shot before Vidal desperately slid in front of him in a last-ditch attempt to block the ball. And the shot? It was perfect: curling to the left and bouncing off the far post into the net, as far as possible from Manuel Neuer. So who is most to blame? Thiago for failing to stop the play before it happened? Bernat for failing to tackle? Alonso for missing? Alaba for being out-dribbled in front of the goal? Vidal for arriving too late? They all bear some responsibility, but I credit Saul above all for keeping his composure and doing everything right in each of the situations he met as he approached the goal. That was soccer, and it was magnificent. Hats off. We'll get you next time.