Bayern Flex Defensive Might Against Juventus, but Familiar Problems Loom
Bayern Munich overcame stiff resistance from Juventus in Wednesday's Champions League quarterfinal second-leg match, ultimately earning their victory by a rather comfortable 2-0 margin. Second-half goals from Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro sealed victory in Turin, a remarkable result for Jupp Heynckes' side.
Juve pressed at high intensity in the first half, and were the better team over the first half hour. But Bayern settled and if it hadn't been before, the tie was decided in the 64th minute as Mandzukic fired home the opener. The German giants went on to win the tie 4-0 on aggregate, sealing their spot in the semifinals.
Friday's draw will determine whether Bayern face Dortmund, Real Madrid or Barcelona in the semifinals. And whichever side they face, the Munich side will have an even more difficult task at hand.
With respect to Juventus, Bayern were able to exploit clear weaknesses in their team. The Turin side have a great central midfield, but no dedicated attacking midfielders, no out-and-out fullbacks, and poor forwards. Jupp Heynckes had a tactical advantage in facing Antonio Conte's 3-5-2 formation, and his side exploited it ruthlessly. While Juve had all their chips placed in central midfield, Bayern were balanced. And it was their balance that won them the tie.
The most impressive aspect of Bayern's victory over the two legs was in their compactness and team defense. Everyone defended when not in possession, and any Juve attacking move was nipped in the bud. In the first leg especially, striker Mario Mandzukic forced the three Juve centre-backs to misplace passes throughout. He also harried Andrea Pirlo again and again, and the Italy midfielder was effectively nullified.
Bayern's swarming tactics have been extremely effective in the Champions League, but have come with a cost. Mandzukic is suspended for the first half of the semifinals following a booking he received early in Wednesday's match. Dante, Luiz Gustavo and Philipp Lahm are all one yellow card away from missing a game as well.
Mario Gomez is good cover for Mandzukic, but Bayern are becoming increasingly thin and are in serious danger of having a depleted squad on hand either in the second leg of the semifinal or in the final should they advance. And at this stage in the tournament, substitutes aren't enough.
All the remaining Champions League sides are more balanced than Juventus, and Bayern will not have any clear tactical advantages against any of their possible opponents. They've been able to handle the losses of injured duo Holger Badstuber and Toni Kroos until now, but any further injuries or suspensions could spell defeat to a team like Real, Barca or Dortmund.
Consider the entirely possible scenario that Dante and Lahm are carded in the first leg of the semifinal. Heynckes will be forced to use either Rafinha at right-back and Daniel van Buyten in central defense, or drop a holding midfielder into central defense while playing Boateng on the right.
Either way, it's a huge shuffling of the back line and a makeshift defense. Both Lahm and Dante came very close to being booked in Wednesday's match: It will be difficult for both to make it through two legs of the semifinals without seeing yellow. Sadly, the question may be more of when they are suspended than whether they are.
The possible scenario Bayern face this season is all too familiar. Last year, Badstuber, Gustavo and David Alaba were suspended in the Champions League final as Bayern faced a similarly depleted Chelsea. The match was billed as Bayern's to lose, but they choked, perhaps in part due to there being so many second-string players in the lineup. It wasn't Bayern-A vs. Chelsea-A., but a semi-Bayern-B vs. semi-Chelsea-B in the final.
Whichever side they face in this year's semifinals, the tie will not be Bayern's to lose. Nor will the final, if they indeed advance.
In this season's Champions League, Bayern have proven that when at full or near-full strength, they are arguably the best team in the world. They're at least a mile ahead of Juventus, and beat Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal. Real and Barca are also very strong, but both have shown their weaknesses.
The trouble is, Bayern's task is more complex now than it's been thus far. They face two battles: One against their opponents, and the other against the referee's whistle. They must not only win, but do so cleanly. This would be a manageable task against a team like Hoffenheim, but against a Real, Barca or Dortmund, it's exceedingly difficult.
Based on overall performance this season, Bayern have a legitimate claim to be called Europe's best team. Still, they face an extremely steep hill to climb if they are to win the Champions League.
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