On my way to commentate on Wednesday's UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg between Real Madrid CF and FC Bayern München I was reading up on team news in the German papers.
One article in Süddeutsche Zeitung focused on the qualities of Pepe, Madrid's uncompromising and sometimes temperamental centre-back, and his aerial capabilities in particular. A nearby column also mentioned his defensive partner Sergio Ramos' heading prowess.
Bayern will not start with Mario Mandžukić up front, then, I guessed, less because of the Croatian's relatively meagre three-goal return in the UEFA Champions League this term than his own aerial proficiency. Seven of Mandžukić's 18 goals in the Bundesliga have come from headers, but putting him against Pepe and Ramos in the air would create an unnecessary battle when Bayern have other attackers – namely Thomas Müller and Mario Götze – capable of exploiting any positional deficiencies on the ground. Most papers assumed Müller, with five goals already in this term's competition, would lead the line.
You should never be surprised by a Josep Guardiola team sheet – he has not picked the same Bayern side twice in a row all season – but naturally I was a little taken aback when I saw Mandžukić was starting up front. Even so, I could reason his inclusion based on his game-changing introduction in the quarter-final first leg against Manchester United FC, when Mandžukić nodded down for Bastian Schweinsteiger to score the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. He also scored in the 3-1 second-leg victory.
Another observation was Philipp Lahm's presence as the lone defensive midfielder. In view of the threat of FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, it had been widely expected that Lahm would be given chief marking duties at right-back, especially after he marked Ronaldo out of the game in the first leg between the sides at the same stage two seasons ago. Madrid's likely tactic of sitting deep, soaking up pressure and hitting Bayern on the counterattack had also led many to assume Javi Martínez would partner Schweinsteiger in a double shield in front of defence.
Instead, Guardiola signified his intention to dominate play in Madrid's half of the field with Lahm as the solitary pivot and Schweinsteiger as part of a four-man attacking midfield. Rafinha started at right-back, rewarded for his consistently solid performances this campaign with his first career match against the nine-time European champions.
Early in the match it looked as though it was only a matter of time before Bayern would seize the advantage. They swarmed around the hosts' box from the start, creating the game's first chances and boasting close to 80% possession. However, just as it appeared the holders would break the deadlock, Madrid pounced.
Mandžukić, as planned, rose in the area to head down for Toni Kroos, but the Bayern midfielder's side-footed finish was blocked by Pepe. Karim Benzema picked up the loose ball and, as the white shirts streamed forward, Madrid worked the ball wide to Ronaldo. Fellow Portuguese international Fabio Coentrão had darted all the way from left-back and pointed in behind Jérôme Boateng, where he collected his compatriot's pass, looked up and squared for Benzema, who arrived virtually undetected to apply the simplest of finishes.
It was a scintillating break, but, frustratingly for Bayern, nothing they had not been warned against. The ease with which the visitors were exposed only served to highlight the dangers of leaving Lahm overrun in the face of such a quality attack. When Ronaldo played through for Coentrão, Schweinsteiger had barely caught up despite his best attempts to recover from his side's aborted attack.
To emphasise the problem, Lahm was bypassed entirely again seven minutes later as Luka Modrić fed Benzema, again on the back of a sustained Bayern attack. The forward's low centre was met by Ronaldo, who had raced ahead of Bayern's scrambling back four. To the Bavarians' relief, Ronaldo misconnected and the deficit remained at one goal.
By now, Mandžukić had become anonymous in attack, with Pepe and Ramos bossing the centre. At the other end, Angel Di María spurned the final opportunity of the half as he blazed over, again emphasising Bayern's need for an extra pair of boots in midfield and fresh ideas up front.
It could have been 3-0 at the interval but no changes were forthcoming. Again Madrid threatened to extend their advantage, Ronaldo pulling a full-stretch stop from Neuer shortly after the restart. Bayern probed with minimal success for another 20 minutes until finally, in the 66th minute, Guardiola acquiesced. Martínez came on and Schweinsteiger was drawn back to partner him. As expected, Lahm moved back into defence and before long Götze and Müller were also introduced.
The reshuffle had the anticipated effect. Götze and Müller had Bayern's best chances to equalise, exploiting the pockets of space in the Madrid backline. Götze drew a superb close-range save from Iker Casillas and Müller was only denied by a heroic last-ditch Xabi Alonso challenge, but it was evident that these two carried Bayern's best hopes of a leveller. So why did it take so long to make the change?
Far be it from me, of course, to advise Guardiola on tactics. The Spanish coach, pressed after the match by the Sky cameras on whether he reacted too late, admitted himself: "Possibly, yes." Expect to see Müller play from the start in Munich.
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