After going three games without a win and having their 53-match unbeaten streak ended in the league last weekend, Bayern could not have gone into the second leg of their quarterfinal tie against Manchester United under worse circumstances.
Since clinching the Bundesliga title at the end of March, Bayern have looked a shadow of themselves. Of course, sealing the league with seven games to spare could turn any player’s attention away, but the manner in which Bayern have dropped points was worrying.
Bayern have now reached the semifinals of the Champions League for the fourth time in five years, and both games against United are a valuable lesson for the team going forward. They cannot take their status as favorites for granted, nor can they play any of the remaining teams they way they did United for the majority of the tie.
The first leg in Manchester went exactly as most expected. On paper, anyways. The reality was that Bayern were frustrated by United’s mass defending and could not get their attacking game to click at their usual clockwork level.
Up until Patrice Evra’s goal in the second half, Bayern’s game began to look increasingly more like it did in the first leg. They had the majority of possession, but even with an extremely attack-minded lineup, they could not muster a good shot on target.
Bayern’s lack of incisiveness kept United in the game and put the Bavarians in a very dangerous position to lose their away-goal advantage. The first 10 minutes of the second half were as bad as Bayern have played in Europe this season.
It was no surprise, then, that Evra scored the opening goal around the hour mark. Antonio Valencia’s run down the right wasn’t picked up and none of the Bayern defenders reached to clear it before it fell to Evra's feet. Arjen Robben admitted after the game that it was inexcusable at that level.
To their credit, Mandzukic’s equalizer just 73 seconds later reignited the team and completely changed the momentum. It was the wake-up call Bayern needed, and from there on, they played the way most expected them to.
Suddenly their horizontal game became effective and their passing more composed and self-assured. United no longer looked a threat with Bayern imposing their game on them, and Robben and Co. closed out the game in style.
Robben’s goal elicited Guardiola’s first smile of the night. Prior to that, the Bayern manager was visibly nervous, as nervous as he has been in any game this season. Sure enough, he admitted that the last two weeks were all about preparing for this encounter, but the lack of real control and dominance displayed for much of the tie could not have been reassuring.
Guardiola was also confident ahead of this game that his side would progress, but for a good hour it seemed the same ineffective tactics from the first leg were rinsed and repeated. And while they did a much better job limiting United’s counterattacks, their own was dulled in the process.
The turning point was Mandzukic’s goal. Starting him up front ahead of Muller and Gotze was an inspired choice by Guardiola, and the Croatian striker has proven time and time again he performs when it matters most. Going into the semifinals, one would think that he is a shoo-in to start, given his crucial performances in both legs against United.
Not only did the equalizer spur the players mentally, it changed the tempo completely. Bayern’s game picked up significant pace, particularly down the right through Robben, and United had to come out of their shell to adjust.
What David Moyes’ side did so well up to that point was keep their defensive shape, but with Bayern players moving and combining at greater speeds, it became impossible to remain tactically disciplined enough to pick up every single attacker. The goals were almost inevitable.
Equally important to reaching the semifinals was that Bayern finally played at the level expected for the last half hour. In Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and Real Madrid, Bayern will face three teams that will not sit back as United did but actively come out and take their game to them. Guardiola’s side cannot afford to be as flat as they were in the first half of this leg or in Manchester.
After having their long unbeaten streak ended and being pushed by arguably the weakest side in the quarterfinals, Bayern will feel elated at going through and finishing the game on a high note. It will also give them a great boost ahead of the largely meaningless but competitive test against Borussia Dortmund in the league this weekend.
Guardiola will learn Bayern’s fate on Friday, and regardless of who they draw in the semifinals, they will have to be at their absolute best to have any hopes of achieving the unprecedented Champions League repeat.
Follow Cristian on twitter @cnyari