The past two days have seen tense semifinal first legs in the UEFA Champions League, with just one goal scored between the quartet of superclubs remaining in the competition. The close results in the openers should make for some ambitious and highly-motivated play in the return matches next week.
To better consider what might happen in Munich and Madrid next Tuesday and Wednesday, let’s look back at what happened in the first legs in Madrid and Manchester. Once we review, we can more clearly project how the aggregate results might finish and predict which two clubs are likeliest to meet at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan on May 28.
Manchester City v. Real Madrid
(0-0 after first leg)
Without Cristiano Ronaldo, sidelined with a lingering hamstring injury from the away match in England, Real Madrid started out tentatively but poured on the pressure in the second half. The Spaniards were unlucky to leave Manchester without an away goal, with Joe Hart proving nearly impenetrable and the posts taking care of those shots that did pass the keeper. City actually had the better run of play in the first half, but didn’t muster a shot on target until Kevin De Bruyne’s 93rd-minute free kick from a tight angle to the left of goal just outside the box was saved by Keylor Navas. Ultimately both teams walked away at an impasse after the first 90 minutes, leaving the return leg at the Bernabeu to settle the score.
Ronaldo is apparently undergoing stem cell treatments to try to heal in time for next Wednesday’s match at home. Even without the Portuguese superstar, however, Real has the advantage of playing in friendly environs. But City has the advantage of knowing that any score gives them the advantage in away goals even in the case of a draw. Zinedine Zidane has favored a more defensively-driven approach, leaving players like James Rodriguez on the bench, while Manuel Pellegrini has been liberated by his lame-duck status and has been maximizing the resources at his disposal. The lack of goals at the Etihad Stadium could loom large in this contest, costing the chance at undecima for Real.
PREDICTION FOR SECOND LEG: 1-1 aggregate (Manchester City advance on away goals)
Atletico Madrid v. Bayern Munich
(1-0 Atletico after first leg)
Bayern Munich controlled three-quarters of the possession on their visit to the Calderon, generating a ridiculous 20 scoring chances. Jan Oblak stood up to the barrage, stopping all seven shots that Bayern put on target, and Atletico nearly took the lead thanks to the resurgent Fernando Torres. A few minutes later, Saul Niguez made the most of his loping 40-yard run through a trio of Munich defenders and beat Manuel Neuer at the far post with his left foot to put the hosts ahead on aggregate. Diego Simeone, who recently received a three-match ban for interference in a La Liga match, put a brilliant game plan in place to thwart the ambitions of his former domestic rival Pep Guardiola and put his club in position for its second trip to the Champions League finals in three seasons.
Of course, the two clubs still have to return to Bavaria for the second leg next Tuesday. Bayern Munich lacks an away goal, which means that even a 2-1 defeat would put Atletico through and on its way to Milan. But one presumes that Guardiola will have his team alert; over the past few years we have seen Bayern go through the motions on the road in the Champions League before crushing their opposition when returning to the Allianz Arena. Munich under Guardiola is 1-4-4 away from home in Champions League knockout play, getting outscored 13-8 by their opponents, but they are also 6-1-1 at home over the past three campaigns. If there is one team that could be good enough to give Bayern another home loss and early exit before Guardiola leaves Germany, it would be the Spaniards…
PREDICTION FOR SECOND LEG: 2-2 aggregate (Atletico Madrid advance on away goals)