Real Madrid's Karim Benzema sinks Bayern Munich's pass masters

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema scores against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Bernabéu. Photograph: ...

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema scores against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Bernabéu. Photograph: Andres Kudacki/AP
There was a moment in the Fondo Sur, where the most boisterous Madridistas bang their drums and orchestrate the loudest noise, when a huge banner was unfurled to read "Reyes de Europa". The nine-times winners have not lived up to that "Kings of Europe" reputation since Zinedine Zidane's volley at Hampden Park in 2002 but now, after years of hard-luck stories, near misses and frequent underachievement, the club of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale et al are one more good result away from their first Champions League final in 12 years.
That will not be straightforward, naturally, when the opposition areBayern Munich, the outstanding club side in Europe over the past three seasons. Madrid, however, are entitled to feel they are the marginal favourites as they go into the return leg at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday, not just because of Karim Benzema's first-half strike but also the inability of their opponents to turn all their possession into the hard currency of goals. Bayern had far more of the ball, they just did not do a great deal with it. They played every kind of pass apart from the killer one and, for all their possession, they did not manage a really clear chance until the 84th minute.
Madrid, in stark contrast, created the much better opportunities from considerably less of the ball on a night when Ronaldo was short of fitness and Bale started on the bench because he was still feeling the after-effects of a virus. Bale replaced Ronaldo after 73 minutes and Carlo Ancelotti may need them in better shape if Madrid are to feature at Estádio da Luz on 24 May. More than anything, los blancos must hope their opponents flatter to deceive again. Bayern put seven past Barcelona at this stage last season – 4-0 in Bavaria, 3-0 in Catalonia – but a year on they stood accused here of valuing possession football ahead of the penetrative sort.
Pep Guardiola's side had 73% of the ball in the first half and 64% in the second. Before the goal, after 18 minutes, it was 85% in their favour. They put together 674 passes in total, compared with 260 for their opponents, and it was rare to see any team at this level, never mind one as esteemed as Madrid, cede so much possession on their own ground. Ronaldo, to put it into context, had the ball only three times in the first quarter of an hour. Yet this was a night when the statistics felt like a deception judging by the lack of incident in Iker Casillas's goalmouth.
There is also no more enthralling sight in football than when Madrid are breaking on the counterattack, with Ronaldo picking up speed, stretching those powerful limbs, and the crowd urging the ball to arrive at his feet. The danger comes from every angle and, from defence to attack, there was something remarkable about the way the opening goal was carved out.
A few seconds earlier, Mario Mandzukic's header had given Toni Kroos the chance to let fly inside the penalty area. Pepe threw himself at the ball and, as soon as the volley was blocked, the players in white started to advance. Ronaldo collected the ball on the left and his pass was weighted beautifully for the overlapping Fábio Coentrão. Madrid's left-back had one of his more distinguished games and his low cross eluded Dante and David Alaba to leave Benzema with a straightforward finish from six yards.
As Guardiola, reflecting on his first defeat here as a manager, said afterwards: "Real Madrid are the best team in the world at counterattacking. The faster you take the ball to them, the faster it comes back, and in this sense they are unstoppable."
Bayern were briefly knocked out of their rhythm but it was only temporary and they quickly shook their heads clear. "I wanted them to show they are real footballers, to take the ball and play, then play again," Guardiola explained. "You might not believe me, but I am proud of my players." Yet he did also admit they were fortunate not to lose more heavily.
Almost always, they would look to go wide. Arjen Robben has menaced every team he has faced in the competition this season. Franck Ribéry, on the opposite side, always wanted the ball, and this double act was formidable enough to pin Madrid into their own half at times.
The paradox was that Madrid, despite surrendering so much of the ball, could also reflect that they ought to have scored more, particularly in the first half. Ronaldo, of all people, was careless in the extreme when Benzema's 26th-minute cross picked him out close to the penalty spot and the Ballon d'Or winner shanked his shot over the crossbar. Ronaldo's look of self-revulsion was a measure of how rare these aberrations are, but he was not alone. Five minutes before the interval, another left-wing cross went over Ronaldo and fell invitingly for the unmarked Ángel di María. His shot was wild and Bayern were let off again.
Bayern's entire season has been about exerting pressure on their opponents and the pattern continued in the second half. At times, however, they were in danger of straying towards the predictable. Robben continued to shine but he and Ribéry often found themselves crowded out by opposition defenders. Mandzukic's mobility lets him down and the substitute Mario Götze aimed his shot too close to Casillas when Bayern had their best chance to equalise.
"It's a slight advantage but that's it," Ancelotti said. "We have to give everything, and to suffer, in the next game. We have a bit of an advantage, but nobody can say what is going to happen."


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